Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism 32 – what’s morality got to do with it?

Most, if not all, people will oppose capitalism on moral grounds, or will at least be motivated by concerns for what they consider fairness and justice.  Marx however was famously contemptuous of morality; it was said by someone who knew him that he ‘burst out laughing every time anyone spoke to him of morality.’

‘The communists do not preach morality at all’, Marx and Engels wrote in the German Ideology, which were early notebooks clarifying their ideas. In the published ‘Communist Manifesto they describe ‘Law, morality, religion, are . . . so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.’

In the editorial quoted in the last post, the Financial Times states that ‘it is a moral imperative to help the neediest.’  But as Trotsky said of it in ‘Their Morals and Ours’, ‘morality is a product of social development . . . it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.’  The FT editorial confirms both Marx and Trotsky right by stating that ‘lifting people out of economic precariousness is also greatly in the self-interest of the better off,’ this being a euphemism for the capitalist class and its senior management.

Obviously for Marxists and for workers generally it is not the interests of ‘the better off’ that is their concern.  For the working class their interest lies in determining their own needs and their ability to determine how they may be met.

Moral precepts may exist at a very general level but as Trotsky also says – at this level their extent of application is limited and unstable. The real world does not lend itself to abstract moral imperatives as a guide to conduct in situations of change and conflict, the world that actually exists.  Even looking at a paradigmatic case, in which one thirsty person has a bottle of water and requires all of it to survive, but is joined by an equally thirsty second person.  Should the water be shared equally, kept by the first owner or given to the second in order to satisfy a moral imperative?  Or rather, does any moral consideration arise from examination of the actual circumstances of the case; and what exactly is the moral option to be taken in this one?

Such an example demonstrates that what should be done is very much determined by what is, which constrains what can be done.  Each of these is not subject to timeless moral imperatives but to the concrete interests of individuals in society.  Since society and the individuals within it are made up of classes, these classes will have different interests and different moral perspectives.

To attempt to envelope all of them in an all-encompassing morality that is more than abstract generalisation will involve denial of divisions and contradictions, which can therefore only involve denial of the struggle between classes that expresses these contradictions. This necessarily leads to denial of any requirement to discuss how the class struggle should be conducted, since no legitimate class struggle is admitted. Instead, we have appeals from the newspaper of the capitalist class (price £2.90/€3.20 on weekdays) for that class to take a moral stance to avoid class struggle.

For Marxists, the alternative is not to seek some imposed satisfaction of needs as determined by another class but to fight for the separate and independent needs of the working class, as determined by itself.  When discussing the precariousness arising from ‘economic change’ and ‘globalisation’ the ‘Financial Times’ reaches for moral imperatives imposed on the capitalist class.  When Marx discusses the same, in the Communist Manifesto he does so in a very different way and addresses a very different audience:

‘The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (Trades’ Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.’

‘Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarian, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.’

The moral imperative is not therefore to ‘help the neediest’ but for the ‘neediest’ to help themselves.  And in this, It is not a question of removing what is bad from society with a set of policies and actions that makes it more perfect, or of ‘polishing off the rougher edges’ as the FT would have it.  It is not seeking a solution based on some moral imperative standing above a flawed, defective or broken society that needs fixed.

When faced with the contradictions of capitalist society and the antagonisms arising from it Marx stated that:

“What constitutes dialectical movement is the coexistence of two contradictory sides, their conflict and their fusion into a new category. The very setting of the problem of eliminating the bad side cuts short the dialectic movement . . . from the moment the process of the dialectic movement is reduced to the simple process of opposing good to bad, and of administering one category as an antidote to another, the categories are deprived of all spontaneity; the idea “ceases to function”; there is no life left in it.”

This is not so much an indictment of the ideologues of capitalism but of those who oppose it with blueprints, plans or policies to make from it a good or just society, rejecting the contradictions within it that they think of as only a problem.  For those who see only the bad aspect of capitalism and seek to remove it, through whatever means, Marx says this:

‘So long as they look for science and merely make systems, so long as they are at the beginning of the struggle, they see in poverty nothing but poverty, without seeing in it the revolutionary, subversive side, which will overthrow the old society.’  (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy)

So, what should be done is very much determined by what is.  The contradictions contained in what is determines social development (of which morality is a product) and determines what can be done.  It is not the application of moral judgements lying outside existing social development but imperatives that arise from the contradictions within it that determines what can be done.

The contradictions of the capitalist mode of production and their further development can be understood in terms of the contradiction between the development of the forces of production and the associated relations of production.  These have been the subject of previous posts and will be elaborated further in the next.

In the meantime, it would be well to note how Marx perceives what is, what should and what can through repeating the quotation above:

‘This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes.’

It was no answer in Marx’s day to simply denounce the exploitation of ‘modern industry’ and call for a return to purely local development, just as it is no answer for the editor of the Financial Times to do so today.  If we slightly reword what Marx said we can see something else:

‘This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different nations in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous national struggles, all of the same character, into one international struggle between classes.’

Only three words are changed; but it shows how mistaken it is to oppose, and try to reverse, the current development of ‘modern industry’ because it breaks the bounds of the nation state and seeks to draw closer into an international union purely national economic and social development.

We refer, of course, to those who supported Brexit on the grounds that it would do exactly this and who did so because modern international economic development was bad and exploitative of the working class.  Action by the nation state, or within its confines, was the supposed solution to this particular expression of the development of modern industry.

In Trotsky’s pamphlet on morality much of the discussion revolves around the idea that the end justifies the means, lazily taken to imply that moral ends cannot justify immoral or amoral means.  It is however difficult to see what could justify adopted means other than the ends pursued.  For a Marxist the ends and means are mutually determining and what are means can be considered ends and what are ends are just further means.  As Marx said

‘Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.’

Some on the Left supported Brexit, though the means by which it was achieved was a catalogue of ignorant propaganda over many years; an ever more right-wing Conservative and wider reactionary movement; and a base of support centred on nationalism, xenophobia and racism.  That the purported ends and the actual means were out of kilter is demonstrated by this Left’s inability to tell anyone, including themselves, what is progressive about what has been achieved and how it has propelled the working class forward.

The EU was capitalist, was therefore bad, and so had to be opposed, by what turned out to be nothing much more than good intentions, or at least for some.  Such imperatives have the abstractness of moral absolutes and are certainly not derived from Marxism.  This Left can get its books out and recall its Marx but doesn’t understand what he said and cannot apply it.

 

1 thought on “Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism 32 – what’s morality got to do with it?

  1. The other notable FT story, is its current one about plans to scrap UK workers rights, now that Britain has “taken back control”. Is that what the “Left” Brexiters and economic nationalists wanted, because that is what they are going to get, and it was inevitable that that would be the result of Brexit from the start.

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