March , 2019

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Marxism and Ethics: Freedom, Desire, and Revolution
State University of New York Press, Albany, 2012. 249pp., $80 hb

Reviewed by David Marjoribanks


David Marjoribanks is an Associate Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent. His PhD thesis is titled ‘Morality as Ideology: Marx, materialism, and ideology-critique’ (D.J.Marjoribanks@kent.ac.uk )
ReviewThe interface between Marxism and ethics has always been rather ambiguous. On one hand, Marx rarely engaged in ethical discourse, and when he broached the subject often dismissed it as pernicious ideological abstraction. Morality, for historical materialism, does not stand apart from society and history, but is part of the ‘ideological and political superstructure’ which arises on the basis of a mode of production. It is therefore social and historical. Since all consciousness is socially determined, moral ideas, it seems, reflect or express prevailing social relations. They ‘belong to’ these relations, and thus cannot provide the basis for transcendent, trans-historical assessments of them. Hence Marx frequently attacked socialists who offered ethical critiques of capitalism. Communism, Marx and Engels emphasised, “is not for us 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.” (Marx and Engels 1976, 49)

At the same time, however, Marx advocated communism not merely as a scientific prediction, but as an ethical ideal. Further, his critiques of capitalist exploitation and alienation also seem to require ethical premises and commitments to freedom and self-realisation, for example. This ambiguity in the founders has plagued Marxism ever since.

In this important study, Paul Blackledge provides a thorough, detailed and wide-ranging account of the controversies around ethical questions in the history of Marxism. However, it also becomes quickly apparent that this is not just an impressive historical account of the debates on socialism and ethics from Marx and Engels, through Bernstein, Kautsky, Lenin, Lukács, and Gramsci, to the Frankfurt School, Sartre and the British New Left. It is also an interpretation of Marx’s moral viewpoint as centring on an historical approach to freedom and the virtues of solidarity which emerge through collective struggle, and an essay on political strategy in defence of the Leninist-Lukácsian conception of socialist practice (including vanguardism) and political agency. This book is about Marxism more generally, and Blackledge offers an interpretation of classical Marxism which finds the resources for an ethical socialist practice based on the centrality of workers’ self-activity.

As a consequence of the ambiguity and apparent ‘moral deficit’ in Marxism and the split between scientific socialism and ethical discourse, Blackledge notes that several contemporary philosophers in both the analytical and continental camps have abandoned Marxism in favour of a turn to ethics. G. A. Cohen, for example, rejected what he called the “obstetric” conception of political practice, according to which socialists are mere midwives, bringing into existence a new form of society already developing within the womb of capitalism, which digs its own grave as The Communist Manifesto famously put it. Cohen therefore turned to utopian moralising based on transhistorical principles of justice. On the other side of the Channel, against Althusserian anti-humanism (itself a response to the humanist critique of Stalinism), philosophers such as Alain Badiou and Simon Critchley have similarly turned away from Marxism to ethics. This ethical turn, Blackledge notes, is usually coupled with a general pessimism about the possibility for socialist agency in the contemporary world, after the defeats of the working class under the triumph of neo-liberalism. On the other hand, if these thinkers’ ethical turn reflects a political pessimism, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s ethical anti-capitalism is dismissed as “almost wilfully naive in its optimism” (10), and Slavoj Žižek’s voluntarism, while focusing attention back to politics, similarly fails to examine the capitalist social relations of the modern state, Blackledge argues.

Blackledge’s position thus emerges between these two alternatives: either optimism with inadequate political analysis or ethical utopianism and political pessimism. Marxism, he argues, can overcome the political limitations of ethical anti-capitalism and the ethical limitations of a Nietzschean ‘nihilist’ political rejection of ethics. Blackledge follows Alasdair MacIntyre in holding that such Nietzschean nihilism has its rational roots in the ‘emotivist’ moral culture of bourgeois society.

The third way between these alternatives for Blackledge was identified by the early MacIntyre, although the basis lies in Hegel, who followed Aristotle in thinking that ethics must start from a model of the human essence and a goal of self-realisation, but followed Kant in recognising that it is only through freedom that this could be achieved. Hegel historicised the concept of the human essence, Blackledge notes, by pointing to the social content of freedom.

His taking up of MacIntyre’s early Marxist ethics takes Blackledge onto the issue of MacIntyre’s later rejection of Marxism. A key question becomes whether or not MacIntyre’s assessment of Marxism is justified. But Blackledge accepts wholesale MacIntyre’s famous indictment of the emotivist nature of modern moral culture, and thus his question is not only whether MacIntyre’s later assessment of Marxism is right, but also whether Marxism contains moral resources which might “extricate us from the crisis of modern moral philosophy” (36) and “inform those anti-capitalist struggles which could contribute to overcoming the social basis for our contemporary moral fragmentation” (36). His conclusion is that collective working-class struggles can indeed provide a viable and virtuous alternative to modern moral theory’s predicament and also “point to the concrete social content of the struggle for freedom in the modern world” (43).

On the issue of Marxism’s moral view, Blackledge argues that “Marx’s attempt to escape the impotence of moral theory is best understood not as a nihilistic rejection of ethics, but more narrowly as a refusal of the modern liberal assumption … that moral behaviour involves the suppression of our naturally egoistic desires on the basis of a disembodied conception of reason” (3). A coherent ethics can be found in Marx, he argues, but it must be understood within a wider whole – a view of society from the standpoint of the working class. Marx did not reject morality, but rooted it in revolutionary practice.

The content of this ethical practice is freedom as self-determination. First, freedom is grounded in the satisfaction of basic needs. Second, as productivity increases, needs expand, and the human being ‘rich in needs’ emerges. The realisation of needs is thus the social content of this historicised conception of freedom. Blackledge demonstrates that for Marx it was the collective working-class struggles over the working day that reveal an alternative to capitalism and a model of historical progress. The historicised human essence as freedom, Blackledge argues, is best conceived as an “immanent potential which evolves over time through a process of collective struggles shaped by the development of humanity’s productive forces” (57). The concrete content therefore changes through history. Marx saw that “capitalism’s inhumanity compelled workers to rebel … and grasp toward those forms of association through which they could make concrete … [freedom]” (75). Workers’ solidarity became the real basis of need and desire. Through struggle itself the working class could escape their atomisation and dehumanisation to become a collective agency capable of overthrowing the established order and achieving the (historicised) human essence – freedom. Thus, Marx’s ethics is rooted in workers’ real struggles, themselves based on their interests.

Despite Blackledge’s achievements, here some weaknesses begin to show. He is disappointingly vague on the content of this moral view, and seems content merely to show that it has its basis in Marx rather than explain and defend it. To be fair, this is partly because the early MacIntyre himself is also rather vague, and doesn’t add much beyond the conception of freedom based in need that Blackledge identifies in Marx. Freedom is realised through social self-determination, and its content is given by the realisation of needs: the needs of ‘social humanity’. But what are ‘social individuals’? And why should we think that they require socialism? Blackledge follows MacIntyre in thinking that capitalism creates an agency “whose struggles embody a new democratic spirit, through which individuals come to understand both that their needs and desires can best be satisfied through collective channels, and that they do in fact need and desire solidarity” (182). But feelings of solidarity can take many different forms (think of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’) and these may not necessarily be incompatible with capitalism. And even if we necessarily come to need and desire solidarity, do we ‘naturally’ desire socialism? This seems a rather more controversial, perhaps essentialist, claim. Since he notes that freedom has social content, Blackledge does not need to engage in abstract reasoning about what this freedom means; it has a social existence. But he does not give sufficient argument for thinking that in our time the concrete existence of freedom is in fact socialism, just waiting to be realised immanently.

Furthermore, Blackledge does not justify this conjunction of need, desire and freedom, although it is an absolutely central theme. He sides with Lucien Goldmann’s view of Marxism as a ‘wager’ (142) that working-class revolutionary activity can make workers fit for self-government, and can align human needs with the desire for (socialist) solidarity. But since this is merely a wager, and does not have any naturalistic basis (since human nature is historicised), there is little reason given to similarly partake in it. Blackledge sides with Marx and Lukács’s claim that the particular interests of workers and the universal human interests are linked. But this is a questionable assumption, and Marx gives no real argument for this contentious claim. It seems rather to rely on a teleological conception of the proletariat’s ‘historical mission’, and may smuggle in substantive conceptions of the ‘universal interest’ quite aside from the actual interest of particular workers in struggle. Lukács relies on asserting the proletariat’s mission in the “meaning of history”, and Marx’s assumption that the proletariat can only emancipate itself by emancipating all others seems to rely on an unargued assertion of its ontological status as the bearer of a genuine unity of particularity and universality. Blackledge is not sufficiently critical of this idealist strand in Lukács and Marx.

And a question which Blackledge does not raise is why all this mention of needs and desires is necessary, if it ultimately comes down to a wager. The notion of ‘immanent potential’ evolving through time has teleological connotations. But Blackledge does not spell this out. And his Lukácsian teleology seems at odds with his voluntarism.

Blackledge locates ethical objectivity in the working-class’ real struggles. This avoids the emotivism that MacIntyre diagnoses in modern moral culture. Marx criticises the existing order, he says, “from the point of view of real struggles against it and judges that in the present epoch workers’ struggles point toward a fuller realisation of human freedom” (92). Such struggles bring about an objective need for solidarity. But there are two standpoints here, which may come apart: real struggles (procedure) and human freedom (substance). Blackledge follows Marx, who claims that the need for society, although initially a necessary means, becomes an end (93). He does not consider whether there might be a distinction between a proceduralist line here and a substantive one, if the two do not happen to fortuitously align. On the former, it is the process of working-class struggles which is to be valued, and which have reality. It is in the struggle itself that workers come to acquire the virtues of solidarity and in which freedom has concrete existence in their desire for such solidarity. On the latter, such struggles are means to substantive ends (specified independently) such as freedom. If the workers’ struggles are taken procedurally, the problem is that such struggles might not ground socialism (they might lead to all sorts of alternatives). If, however, struggles and the virtues they bring are taken substantively, and freedom is not just whatever emerges from struggle, socialism would seem to be one more subjective preference, subject to the emotivism that Blackledge is keen to avoid. Socialist freedom would require independent justification.

Blackledge argues, for instance, that Alex Callinicos’s deployment of ‘informed desire’ in defence of egalitarianism cannot escape relativism, since “he does not link the standpoint of workers’ struggles to his preferred concept of human nature through a historically emergent conception of desire” (169). However, solidarity in some form may be a need, but can collective democratic control of our labour be given such a naturalistic foundation? Blackledge’s historicised conception of human nature is open to the same challenge of emotivism as he levels at Callinicos.

What is more, it is not at all clear why socialists should even be troubled as Blackledge is by the emotivist menace that MacIntyre sees in modernity. Blackledge has rather inexplicably bought MacIntyre’s critique of modernity wholesale, while rejecting his critique of Marxism. But MacIntyre’s concern is that we have no means of rational justification for what are ‘simulacra of morality’ in modernity. But why should we care about a metaethical inability to rationally justify our moral positions? Given the centrality of practice to Blackledge’s account, one wonders why he doesn’t take a pragmatist response to MacIntyre.

Against MacIntyre’s assessment of Marxism, Blackledge argues that Welsh mining communities, sustained by virtues of solidarity, challenge his pessimism and demonstrate the possibility of overcoming fragmentation and atomisation through working class collective practice. But these examples are taken from the 1980s, and a lot has happened since then in terms of working-class defeats and the triumph of neo-liberalism. What are the chances of such virtuous resistance today? Although it is to his credit that he confronts the issue, Blackledge is rather vague. He writes that “to the extent that [workers’] struggles, despite their weaknesses, point to a political alternative to capitalism, I suggest that MacIntyre’s youthful politics retain their salience” (194). But what is this extent? Blackledge’s assessment of the possibilities for anti-capitalist resistance in workers’ struggles is confined to a few pages in the conclusion. He suggests reasons for optimism about the prospects for such proletarian self-activity, in that the number of wage-labourers has increased globally, even if the working class has experienced restructuring, that exploitation has continued salience, and he cites a few surveys which have found class to remain a relevant category and notes that conclusions that the defeats and fragmentation of the working class amount to a qualitative break with the past are simplistic. Be all that as it may, it remains an open question whether there are forms of resistance capable of carrying us beyond capitalism to socialism. Even if exploitation, alienation, etc. are far from disappearing, and the numbers of wage-labourers has increased, and, indeed, that the current crisis has led to the prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxy being challenged, it remains far from clear that classical socialism is back on the agenda.


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