The Communist Manifesto was published during the twilight of King Louis Philippe’s reign. In 1848, when revolution struck within the same month as the Manifesto’s publication, many might have reasonably believed that the spectre of Communism was manifesting itself throughout the European continent. Of course, Louis Napoleon prevented any possible proletariat seizure of the French government, when he claimed first the presidency for life and then, in 1852, the emperorship.
However, for the Marxian worldview, nothing had changed. The historical analysis could not have been flawed. Everything was a stepping stone towards the fall of capitalism. Many believed this. The Mensheviks saw it as their responsibility to wait for the inevitable, rather than take part in a revolution; Stalin’s “iron laws of history” suggested that Communism was an inevitable development, as did Althusserian efforts to make Marxism a science. However, many Marxists did not remain passive.
Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks took part in revolutions; Mao implemented his homicidal cultural strategy in China; third-world Marxists espoused a radicalism that went beyond Marx. However, all these groups faced the difficult question of how Marxism could motivate their actions.
Marxism, the socio-political theory that originated in the literature of Karl Marx, is an astoundingly accurate descriptive analysis of industrial and post-industrial societies.
However, Marxism as a theory cannot account for prior moral commitments as it stands, since it is a purely descriptive theory and therefore cannot motivate one to take the side of the working class over the bourgeoisie, communism over capitalism, theories of worker value over Taylorism, or to espouse any particular cause at all.
Marxism as a Descriptive Theory
Marxism attempts to account for sociological phenomena by explaining how and why they have come about. It does not tell us what we ought to do with these facts or even how we ought to think about them.
Marxism applies a socioeconomic descriptive lens: certain historical circumstances have always resulted in class struggle; alienation from labour explains the estrangement of the worker; an undeveloped class consciousness explains why the worker might vote against her interests in the political process, etc.
But none of these facts provides any impetus towards political action because it requires a value judgement to discern the proper course of action. The mere fact that a painting is beautiful does not tell me why I should buy it. I must first value beauty.
To determine what is worth valuing, one must have a theory of value. But, if we want a theory to tell us how to act, we need a normative ethics that serves as a code—couched in virtue, deontology or what have you—such that we can apply that code and use it to govern our behaviour, as well as to praise certain behaviours and denounce others, in order to motivate adherence to that code. In other words, a normative moral code claims to justify maxims discursively, such that they are shown to be rationally obligatory.
But Marx gives us only a description of society, leaving us in a quandary as to what to do about it.
Marx was aware of this. However, he simply “takes for granted that, at the right historical moment, circumstances will be such that large numbers of people will be motivated to undertake revolutionary change” and therefore sees no need for a precise moral theory.
The Marxist therefore has two options: she can reject my claim and rely on whatever ethical structure can be salvaged from Marx’s writings, or accept that a class-conscious capitalist is as much a Marxist as anyone else, insofar as she takes the descriptive theory of Marxism to be true and uses it as evidence in her own moral schema.
If we accept option two, the story ends here and you must make your value judgements at random and without justification. If we settle upon option one, then we must further investigate what ethic Marxism might contain, and see if it can help us avoid option two.
It will be assumed that the Marxist does not want to concede the point presented by option two.
Marx and Ethics: A Mere Contingency
Marx’s writings are riddled with concepts that skirt the borders of moral obligation, but never cross over into that unique realm. He clearly has some prior commitment to a set of morals—how else could he side with the proletariat or oblige us to establish a dictatorship of the worker?
Although we have very few of Marx’s own words on ethics to go by, scholars have been able to present his views on the ethical in a widely agreed upon way. Instead of relying on the scraps of claims we can piece together from Marx’s writings in The German Ideology, On the Jewish Question and The Communist Manifesto, we will draw on the work of Howard Selsam.
Selsam presents the Marxian ethic in the following terms: “1) moral values change; 2) they change in accordance with society’s productive forces and its economic relations; and 3) values at any given time are those of the dominant economic class.”
Thus, values for Marx are contingent on socio-historic circumstance: that is, there is nothing universal or transcendental about morality. Moreover, the claim that something is good or just or bad or unjust today might not apply in 100 years from now—or even in ten!
Let’s consider one consequence of such a view.
It is a matter of simple logic that moral progress cannot be accounted for in a contingent ethics, as this requires a universal ideal to be used as a standard by which to compare epochs. But, as we have already seen, there can be no such ideal in Marxism.
For Marx, contingency allows us to simply look to the dominant economic class to explain our values. But is this the genealogy of morality we want to subscribe to?
This claim might be easier to accept if we look at times past, with their gladiatorial battles, crucifixions, slavery and oppression of women. However, when we look forward, this claim is grim, and unlikely to be the kind of thing anyone would want to endorse.
Progress has not come about as the result of our having cultivated a better ethical understanding, Marx claims. Instead, it is simply the result of material forces.
Yet, the idea of moral progress is ubiquitous in our psychology—when we take part in activism, we believe we are pushing for progress. If we do away with this idea, we will have to argue that eighteenth-century Georgia—slave trade and all—is no worse from an ethical standpoint than Georgia today, insofar as it was merely a product of economic relations. This seems to exacerbate the issue since, if all value is contingent, what could motivate a longstanding adherence to the aims of Marxist theory?
This doesn’t disqualify Marxism from providing motivation but it certainly doesn’t solve our central problem. We’ll have to continue the search elsewhere.
Some Possible Solutions to the Problem of Motivation
So contingent ethics, as we have discovered, is not a solution to the problem of motivation—in fact, it exacerbates it. We have not yet answered the question of what could motivate Marxist theory and provide the prior moral commitments that the Marxist maintains. Right now, the Marxist has to concede that the theory provides no reason to take up any particular cause at all, even if its analysis is accurate.
So what are the possible solutions?
Bertell Ollman has proposed an answer to the question posed by the problem of motivation by framing the discussion within a fact-value gap—in which to know something contains within that knowing an attitude about that thing. Ollman writes: “If we defined ‘fact’ as a statement of something known to have happened or knowable, and ‘value’ as that property in anything for which we esteem or condemn it, then, he would maintain that in knowing something (certainly in knowing it well) we already either esteem or condemn.”
This, however, is confused and does not help us solve the issue. The phenomenological account of ethical inquiry does not begin with a predisposed attitude towards a thing—then there would be no inquiry at all!
What would it mean to inquire as to how we should judge or value, say, the killing of animals, if knowing what it is to kill an animal already instantiates our attitude towards it?
We would never have to pause and ask ourselves the value of an action; we would already know that simply by knowing the action itself. This, of course, is not a phenomenological account of ethical judgement that anyone would recognize. Instead, we say that we suspend all judgements before concluding how we value an action, usually by holding it up to some standard found in our normative system.
Of course, these ideas about so-called intuitive moral attitudes are not unique to scholars trying to ascribe an ethics to Marx. In his work Rights, Reasons and Values, Robert Audi proposes a theory of moral intuitionism that sounds much like Ollman’s proposal, and is therefore worth pausing to consider.
Audi argues in favour of a realist account of moral intuitionism, in which there are moral facts or axioms that are intuitive (as mental events) and non-inferential. Moreover, through these intuitions, these facts contain a prima facie justification for believing the moral proposition intuited from a perceived event in a given context.
But, of course, there is no moral situation in which judgement does not rely on the inference to an axiom. For example, Audi uses a situation in which an individual promises to mail a letter for a friend, only to throw the letter away shortly afterwards. Audi argues that we can achieve moral knowledge non-inferentially merely by observation, and conclude that there was wrongdoing by the person who promised to mail the letter and then threw it away.
However, any evaluation that there was wrongdoing by the individual who threw the letter away requires first understanding— and thereby making inference to—the axiomatic concept that promise-breaking is morally wrong.
What’s more, it’s completely implausible to suggest that we can derive prima facie justification from context, as we may well come across contexts we don’t fully understand: for example, the envelope of the letter might have been laced with a poisonous substance such that the person who threw the promised letter away actually saved another person’s life. Therefore, it seems that claims to moral intuitionism, in the form of non-normative intuitive attitudes, of any sort—although promising—will not help the Marxist here.
Brian Leiter attempts to save Marx by claiming that he was simply a Humean about motivation. That is, it’s not the proper moral code that motivates revolution, but “misery, privation, need.” Leiter draws on Marx’s description of how capitalism will eventually fall in The German Ideology, where Marx cites mass immiseration, worldwide capitalism and a large population of individuals without property as the mixture that creates the necessary cocktail.
The mere existence of these factors results in the revolution of the proletariat, like some ontological equation. How this might occur in any detail, I can’t guess, but it’s assumed that, after fully grasping the causal relations of production, they will spontaneously “agitate for change.”
This assumption rests on the idea that people can be moved about, like Newtonian atoms in Euclidean space. This is a faulty assumption, as it does not account for individual psychology, only for mass class consciousness, in which individuals have a residual attitude of hopelessness that comes of recognizing their ultimate oppression by the socioeconomic forms of the ruling class.
But individuals do not spontaneously erupt with moral attitudes, nor do they come to them without inference to some axiom. The mere fact that people have desires that they want to satisfy doesn’t tell us enough: the Marxist must explain why they would choose to satisfy their desires in the particular way Marx envisages.
That is, the fact that the capitalist-industrialist system and bourgeois class cause mass immiseration doesn’t explain why people would revolt and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, rather than appropriate the capitalist system for themselves or beg the bourgeoisie to be merciful. If it’s all merely instrumental insofar as desires are satisfied, then it doesn’t matter how they are satisfied.
Therefore, the attempt to have recourse to Hume doesn’t help here either.
At this point, we are still in the same position as we were when we began. Given the constraints upon which the theory insists, it’s obvious that Marxism can’t account for prior moral commitments. Prior moral commitments or value judgements are unjustified by the theory.
In this sense, Warren Buffet is no less of a Marxist than Adorno, insofar as they both seem to take Marx’s theory to be true. So much for Lenin and his Bolsheviks, Mao and the third-world Marxists, it seems, then, that the Mensheviks, Stalin, with his “iron laws of history,” and the Althusserian analysts were the true Marxists!
Neither the problems of motivation nor of progress can be addressed by the Marxist insofar as she draws solely from the writings of Marx. Supplementary work is necessary. This is perhaps how we should view the Frankfurt School, the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies or Critical Theory.
But that, of course, risks stepping too far away from the Marxian worldview. But, however the Marxist attains her moral motivations, it can’t be through Marx alone.