Marx, Marxists and morality

Critics of Marxism often contemptuously dismiss it as antithetical to morality. In the first of a short series of articles Michael Malkin argues that on the contrary Marxism is deeply moral

"How can you, or any other intelligent person, go on believing in godless communism now?"

This question was put to me more than a decade ago. Its historical context was the collapse of 'official communist' regimes in eastern Europe and the USSR, followed inevitably by the radical 'transformation' - ie, complete liquidation - of many of the communist parties in the west, including the Eurocommunist Marxism Today faction in Britain. As readers may guess from his use of the phrase "godless communism", my interlocutor was a religious believer, in fact a Roman catholic priest.

Our conversation initiated a protracted dialogue that was not short of contradictions. On one side, a communist and atheist, who had once been a believer and understood the intellectual and emotive power of religious ideas and imagery; on the other side, a man for whom communism was anathema, but who found in Karl Marx and his vision of universal human liberation a compelling, prophetic figure.

At the present time, when the anti-war movement is drawing a number of believers, including clergy, into the orbit of our party, questions concerning the attitude of Marxists to religion have a particular relevance. This matter was most recently dealt with in a contribution from comrade Mark Fischer ('Come all ye faithful' Weekly Worker November 29). I have also set down some thoughts on the subject in a series of articles (Weekly Worker December 23 2000, February 1, March 1 and March 29 2001).

Today and in succeeding articles I want to set out the framework for discussion of a closely related subject - the attitude of Karl Marx and Marxists to morality. This will involve focusing on two principal questions.

First, does Marx's critique of bourgeois morality amount to a total condemnation and rejection of morality as such; or is he only putting it in its proper place, by explaining and demystifying its origin, nature and function? Secondly, it is well known that Marx criticised 'ethical socialism' on the grounds of its delusory belief that mere appeals to universal principles of justice and so forth could bring about real social change. But what basis is there in Marxian theory for a genuine, specifically communist form of morality?

Let us begin by returning to the priest's question: "How can you, or any other intelligent person, go on believing in godless communism now?"

First, 'believing'. I pointed out to him that communism is not a religion, not something one "believes in", as one does in christianity, for example, or islam. Marxist theory is not a creed, not a set of fixed dogmatic propositions to which aspirants must give the assent of faith if they are to be accepted into the fold. I was, however, obliged to concede that there were sects and grouplets on the left whose doctrinal thought-police would make Spanish Inquisition zealots look like rank amateurs.

In its theory, Marxism constitutes a new, scientific way of understanding the historical evolution of human societies; in its revolutionary practice, it constitutes a guide to changing the world in which we live, in order, through the self-activity and self-emancipation of the working class, to bring about the liberation of all humanity from oppression and alienation, so that all of us can live lives worthy of what it means to be a truly human being.

Save for the "categorical imperative to overthrow all circumstances in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and despised" (D McLellan (ed) Karl Marx: selected writings London 1977, p69 - hereafter KMSW ) - surely a moral imperative, if ever there was one - for us as Marxists, there are no eternal and immutable verities. Our business as revolutionaries is to engage in relentless criticism and self-criticism by means of which we can come to a practical understanding of our world: the infinite complexity of its determinations and interrelationships, its unceasing change and development.

Next, 'godlessness'. In using this term, my priest friend evidently had two separate ideas in mind.

In the first place, Marxism is quite literally "godless" because it is an explicitly atheistic doctrine that is irreconcilable with any form of religion, which, from the point of view of the priest, represented the fountainhead of all morality. His studies in philosophy and his reading of Marx had led him to the conclusion that Marxism and religion were totally incompatible. On this point I agreed with him unreservedly and personally I would still maintain that Marx's distinctive naturalistic and humanistic reading of materialism has no room for god or gods, no place for supernatural or supranatural beings or entities of any kind. To me this seems an entirely obvious and uncontentious point.

Marx's vision of the natural world (including, of course, the world of human beings and society) was of a self-sufficient and self-regulating system, requiring no supernatural being or agency to explain its existence, because it is all that there is. The natural world itself can provide us with all the knowledge we need in order to understand all phenomena within it. In such a world, 'god' or 'gods' are redundant - no more than unnecessary hypotheses; religion, a manifestation of alienation and illusion. To call oneself a Marxist and at the same time to believe in god is, in this light, not just a personal contradiction but a philosophical absurdity. Marxism without atheism would not merely be inconsistent, but fundamentally self-contradictory.

As Lenin put it in his article 'The attitude of the workers' party to religion', "Marxism ... [is] a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion" (VI Lenin CW Moscow 1963, Vol 15, p402).

But does this 'hostility' mean that we communists should "introduce into the programme of the workers' party an explicit proclamation of atheism, in the sense of declaring a war on religion"? Certainly not. Referring to Engels's 1874 polemic against the Blanquist Communards, he points out that "Engels blamed the Blanquists for being unable to understand that only the class struggle of the working masses could, by comprehensively drawing the widest strata of the proletariat into conscious and revolutionary social practice, really free the oppressed masses from the yoke of religion" (ibid p403).

Yes, "We must combat religion - that is the ABC of all materialism ... But Marxism is not a materialism which has stopped at the ABC. Marxism goes further. It says: we must know how to combat religion, and in order to do so we must explain the source of faith and religion among the masses in a materialist way. The combating of religion ... must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion" (ibid p405).

The bourgeois liberal reduces these social roots to mere ignorance and says, 'Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!', but the Marxist says that the views of such "bourgeois uplifters" are superficial, that they offer not a materialist but an idealist explanation of the problem of religion, whose roots in modern society are predominantly social and rooted precisely in "the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in the face of the blind forces of capitalism" ... No educational book can eradicate religion from the minds of the masses ... until those masses themselves learn to fight this root of religion". And they can only do so when they "fight the rule of capital in all its forms, in a united, organised, planned and conscious way" (ibid p406).

To warn against the possible detrimental effects of mere atheistic propaganda - under certain concrete conditions - is by no means an opportunistic compromise of fundamental Marxist materialist principles, nor any kind of "philistine fear of scaring away the backward sections" of the class, but rather a recognition of the fact that the struggle against religion must be subordinated to the class struggle, "which will convert christian workers ... a hundred times better than bald atheist propaganda" (ibid p407).

Lenin, in short, argued that involvement in the class struggle was the best antidote to religion. With Engels and many of the first generation of Marxists, he also seems to have shared the optimistic assumption that scientific and technological progress, together with advances in education, would by themselves almost mechanically lead to the withering away of religion.

This has proved not to be the case. True, in some parts of the world the mainstream religions appear to be in long-term decline, but there is no shortage of alternatives - either fundamentalist revivals within conventional religious movements or new manifestations, such as the 57 varieties of mysticism, superstition or simple snake-oil quackery represented by phenomena like so-called 'new age' spirituality. It is no coincidence that in post-Soviet Russia we have seen not just the resurgence of the orthodox church as a pillar of the state, but the proliferation of innumerable cults.

The reasons for religion's continuing hold on the minds of millions of people are complex, but it should surely be obvious that as long as human beings live under the political, economic and social oppression and the alienation inherent in the capitalist mode of production, they will seek, as they always have, for a source of solace that can give meaning to a brutalising and dehumanising existence that to many of them seems senseless and, even for the relatively well off, sterile and deeply unsatisfying.

One could even argue, perhaps rather more controversially, that a hunger for meaning, a kind of instinct for teleology, is inherent in human nature itself. As a species endowed with consciousness, language, intelligence and insatiable curiosity, human beings are always asking questions. Throughout history we have asked about the meaning and purpose of life - why does the world exist; why do we exist; what are we for? Perhaps this can be explained, at least in part, by the fact that, uniquely among animals, we can foresee and contemplate our own death. "Thou madest man, he knows not why; He thinks he was not made to die" was how Tennyson expressed this dilemma in the 19th century. If the world has no purpose, if it simply is, then the human species could be seen as just so much flotsam, drifting about on a cold sea of contingency.

The second reason why our priest thought Marxism and communism to be "godless" can be summed up in an oft quoted sentence from the Communist manifesto: "Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion and all morality" (KMSW p236). Hence, Marx's doctrine is seen to be not just immoral (on the grounds that it rejects religion) but intrinsically amoral in that it purportedly "abolishes" all morality. For our priest, this was a real conundrum, because his reading of Marx left him with the conclusion that here was a man passionately animated by a moral concern for the emancipation of human beings from oppression and degradation.

I told him to look at the text again. The sentence just quoted above is part of an extended polemical passage dealing with "bourgeois objections to communism". The contention that "Communism abolishes "¦ all morality" is not a programmatic statement by Marx but an accusation which Marx places in the mouth of his putative bourgeois opponents in order to refute it by drawing attention to the utter emptiness and hypocrisy of bourgeois morality itself, not least in the sphere of sexuality: "Nothing is more ridiculous than the virtuous indignation of our bourgeois at the community of women which, they pretend, is to be openly and officially established by the communists." At the same time, "Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other's wives" (ibid p235).

The 'morality' of Victorian England at this time can be summed up by the fact that, whereas in the salons of the bourgeoisie even the legs of grand pianos were modestly swathed in fabric, literally thousands of child prostitutes were walking the pavements of London, catering for a clientele composed almost exclusively of middle and upper class men.

Marx's intention in the Communist manifesto was not to abjure morality as such, but to expose and criticise its manifestations in bourgeois ideology. Like religion, however, morality as such was not a subject to which Marx devoted any systematic analysis. Hence it is true to say that a reading of the whole corpus of his work touching on the issue produces the impression of paradox and contradiction.

This paradox forms the basis of an interesting monograph by the Oxford academic, Steven Lukes: Marxism and morality. Although it is written from a fundamentally anti-Marxist and anti-communist perspective, this book is worth reading, if only for the fact that it provides a framework for discussion and ample quotations from the classics of Marxism.

Lukes argues that there is a striking paradox in the way that Marx and his followers approach morality: on the one hand, he says, they reject it as "a form of ideology, and thus social in origin, illusory in content, and serving class interests"; they maintain that "there are no objective truths or eternal principles of morality," and that morality needs to be "explained, unmasked, and condemned as an anachronism". On the other hand (and here is the paradox), Marx's writings "abound in moral judgements". Practically every text, however scientific or academic, contains "condemnation, exhortation, and the vision of a better world" (S Lukes Marxism and morality Oxford 1985, p3f).

Having defined this paradox, Lukes resolves it by drawing a distinction between two kinds of morality: on the one hand, there is "the morality of Recht" (by which he means the complex of rights, duties and principles that govern the relations and constitute the ethical framework of civil society under the capitalist mode of production); on the other hand there is something that Lukes calls the "morality of emancipation" - in essence, the basis for a specifically Marxist approach to morality (ibid p27).

Lukes justifies his assertion that Marx and Marxists reject morality per se by saying that, for them, morality is "a form of ideology and thus social in origin, illusory in content, and serving class interests".

There is no argument about the fact that in Marxist terms morality is a form of ideology and there is equally no doubt that it serves class interests. But when Lukes describes ideology itself, without qualification, as "illusory in content", he perpetuates a misconception that has been prevalent for too long. Time and again, Marx is credited with saying that if something is ideological, it must ipso facto be "illusory in content", or the product of "false consciousness".

This is not what Marx thought at all. For Marx, ideology is a category which describes the practical role played by ideas in society generally, and in the class struggle specifically. What makes a particular idea or concept "ideological" is its usefulness in furthering a particular class interest. There is plenty of evidence to show that this is how Marx saw his own ideas, as weapons in the class struggle. Some forms of ideology may indeed be "illusory in content", but this does not apply definitionally to all forms.

The best way to sort this out is to use a simple example. Social classes, as we know, play a pivotal role in Marx's thinking and class is an eminently 'ideological' concept: ie, it plays a practical role in society generally and in the class struggle itself. There was a time, for example, when the idea of class served as a bulwark of the status quo. The ruling class told us that the class system was part of a god-given, hierarchical social order.

Today, thanks in large part to Marxist thinking and the struggles of the working class itself, the existence of social classes is something that our rulers would prefer us not to think about.

In her day, Margaret Thatcher told us that classes did not exist; John Major told us that classes would soon be a thing of the past. For New Labour, naturally, class is a source of acute embarrassment, because, as they keep telling us, 'We're all middle class now'. Where class is acknowledged at all, it is trivialised into a matter of social status or prestige, supposedly about how people speak, how they hold their knife and fork, whether they go to the lavatory or the toilet, and a thousand other things which form the staple of the British situation comedy.

These are examples of ideology, and, as it happens, they are "illusory in content". God did not create classes and Tory central office has not abolished them. But what puts us in a position to know this is the fact that, thanks to Marx, we have at our disposal an ideological concept of class that is not "illusory in content" but rooted in a scientific grasp of material reality. Needless to say, this concept is not carved on a tablet of stone. It can and must be modified to take into account historical changes in the material, social reality which it reflects.

Here we have the key point, when it comes to 'morality' or any other category of ideology. For Marx, all ideas are the product of material circumstances that are constantly subject to historical change. All ideas are what Lukes calls "social in origin" and as society changes so do its ideas. False consciousness and illusion come into the matter when people pretend, or allow themselves to be persuaded, that this is not so. Falsehood and illusion are the inevitable consequence once you start believing that ideas are in some sense autonomous, and that it is ideas which shape reality rather than the other way round.

The relevance of this to moral ideas is obvious: they are held to be independent of historically changing material circumstances; they are supposedly universal, eternal and immutable. Certainly, from the Marxist standpoint, such claims are "illusory in content".

But Lukes is wrong. What Marx "explains, unmasks and condemns" is not the notion of morality itself, but rather the claims which are made about it. What he is attacking is not 'morality' itself as a category, but the 'moralising' that underpins bourgeois ideology's defence of the status quo. All societies, including socialist or communist societies, must develop codes of values in order to create and preserve the social cohesion without which they could not remain in existence. What Marx insists we must recognise, however, is that these codes of values are the product of specific social and economic circumstances. To believe otherwise is indeed to propound an "illusory" account of reality.

Sometimes Marx's impatience with the inability of people to see this does get the better of him, and he seems to be throwing out the moral baby with the bathwater. Hence the well-worn chaplet of aphorisms always recited as 'proof' to the effect that Marx thought morality in itself was mere nonsense.

In what follows I shall argue that Marx's critique of morality, albeit fragmentary, does not constitute a total "condemnation and rejection" of morality per se but rather a "condemnation and rejection" of bourgeois morality in a concretely existing historical form. It can be distilled into four basic propositions.

First, that morality is a human creation expressing in an ideal form a set of social relations. But these social relations reflect and are, in the final analysis, determined by underlying material relations of property and power.

Secondly, that the moral values prevalent in a particular society at a particular time always reflect the concrete material conditions of human life, the way in which that society produces the means necessary for its subsistence and reproduction.

Thirdly, that all moral conceptions are subject to change and development, reflecting changes in the forces and relations of production; and that there is, therefore, so far as Marxists are concerned, no such thing as an eternal and immutable moral verity.

Fourthly, that in societies divided by class conflict morality reflects these divisions and primarily functions as a means of justifying and legitimising the status quo, thus securing the power of the ruling class and reinforcing its ideological claim to represent the best interests of society as a whole.

To say that morality is made not by god but by humanity, that there are no absolute or eternal moral truths and that, in class societies, morality functions primarily as a means of perpetuating the domination of one class over another is, obviously, to challenge some deeply entrenched assumptions. It is essential to grasp that this challenge is not just philosophical but also intensely practical: "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it" ('Theses on Feuerbach', No11 KMSW p158).

The realisation of Marx's categorical imperative involves not just the criticism of "all circumstances in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and despised", but their overthrow. This is why Marx is so impatient with what he sees as the utopianism of ethical socialism and its twin delusions: that mere appeals to universal principles of human justice and so forth could bring about real social change and that we can change the world simply by changing the way we think about it. Marx's condemnation of moralising can easily be mistaken for the condemnation of morality itself.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that for many people Marx's rejection of the claims conventionally made about morality was and is repulsive. The fact that Marx was an atheist was and is enough to ensure his being dismissed as an amoral scoundrel by many religious believers. Here again we must come back to the effect of religious thinking in the ideology of our society.

Even in 'secularised' countries like Britain - which no less an authority than the archbishop of Canterbury recently described as an "atheist society" - religion remains important to the ruling class. Not because they believe in it - though some of them may do - but because it still constitutes a useful ideological weapon in the struggle against radical political and social change. Religion continues, actively or passively, to provide an ultimate 'supernatural' legitimation of the status quo and of values dear to the heart of the bourgeoisie, such as the sanctity of private property and the god-given, hierarchical nature of the social order: "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate - god made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate" is a verse that, for understandable reasons in our 'egalitarian' society, has been quietly suppressed from the Church of England's hymnal. Parsons may preach and pray about social justice and equality, about the inalienable rights of the individual (on paper, and within very strict limits) and so forth, but when the crunch comes, we know on which side of the barricades the church will find itself.

The most effective way in which religion serves to buttress the existing political, economic and social order is by claiming the right to act as the ultimate arbiter on all questions of morality and ethics. By virtue of their supposedly 'divine' origin in scripture and revelation, the moral values that religion propagates ostensibly transcend all considerations of class, race and so forth. They have universal, god-given validity.

The degree to which religious institutions are able to exercise this power of dictating the moral agenda obviously varies enormously. In effectively theocratic states, such as Iran, the power of islam means that religious and secular law become virtually indistinguishable. To transgress the moral dictates of the established religion means that you are not just a sinner, but a criminal, subject to the severest penalties, including execution, for infringing the moral code. Elsewhere, of course, the situation is quite different. In conditions of bourgeois democracy, the secularisation of society means that religion can only seek to influence, rather than to command, but that influence is often considerable when it comes to some crucial social issues. For example, the religious right in America, both inside the Republican Party and through a wide range of fundamentalist pressure groups, still exerts a powerful influence on the political agenda in terms of attitudes to issues like abortion, sexuality and race; in Ireland, it is thanks to the power of the Roman catholic church that abortion is a crime and contraception unavailable.

Readers in Britain will be only to aware of how religious institutions, on the basis of their supposed moral authority, are constantly seeking to interfere in political and social questions.

Recent months have seen attempts by a coalition of church and other religious leaders to lobby against the abolition of clause 28, against the equalisation of the age of consent for gay sex and against plans to make the 'morning after' pill available across the counter. It is no coincidence that all these questions relate in one way or another to sex - in which prelates and priests have an obsessive interest. Ann Widdecombe, the self-appointed voice of the pope in the House of Commons, whatever the limits of her own first-hand experience, feels under no constraint to refrain from telling the rest of what we should or should not do in bed.

As communists, whose highest goal is the creation of a truly just and democratic society, in which human beings, freed from the shackles of alienation, can develop every aspect of their social being to the full, we dismiss theses notions of morality in their entirety. Of course, communism does indeed involve what Marx called "the most radical rupture with traditional ideas" (KMSW p237). This "rupture" is essential. For communists it is an absolute duty to challenge and struggle against all the false claims of bourgeois ideology, including those made by religion in relation to morality and ethics.

As materialists and atheists, communists argue that morality is a human creation expressing in an ideal form a set of social relations. But these social relations reflect and are ultimately determined by underlying material relations of property and power; moral values prevalent in a particular society at a particular time reflect the concrete material conditions of human life, the way in which that society produces the means necessary for its subsistence and reproduction; moral conceptions are subject to change and development, reflecting changes in the forces and relations of production - there are, therefore, no eternal and immutable moral truths; in societies divided by class conflict, morality reflects these divisions and primarily functions as a means of justifying the status quo, thus securing the power of the ruling class and reinforcing its ideological claim to represent the best interests of society as a whole.

Historically, many on the left have had big problems with the whole notion of ethics. They have read into Marx's often bitterly sarcastic and dismissive strictures against bourgeois morality a condemnation of all morality per se, drawing the conclusion that there is no basis in Marxian theory for a specifically communist or proletarian ethic. I believe, and later hope to demonstrate, that this position is incorrect; that it represents a crude misunderstanding of the thrust of Marx's critique of capitalism, a critique that is replete with what can only be called heartfelt moral indignation; and that Marx's philosophical approach to the historic role of the proletariat, whose self-emancipation brings about the emancipation of all humanity, has a profound and specific moral dimension.

One subject that was of consuming interest to Marx, a theme that was to occupy him in one way or another throughout his life, was the question, what does it mean to be a human being? Not a human being in relation to a god, spirit or any other supernatural entity; nor a human being seen sub specie aeternitatis; nor an "abstract being squatting outside the world", but "man in the world of man, the state, society" (KMSW p63). Rejecting the teleological preoccupations of so much previous philosophy, Marx dismisses as "speculative distortion" any reading of history which assigns a special, preordained role or destiny to 'man' in the abstract.

From beginning to end, Marx's view is anthropocentric, but it is rooted in the study of "real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their life, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity" (K Marx and F Engels The German Ideology Moscow 1976, p36f).

His perspective is always both historical and social. In the Economic and philosophical manuscripts Marx calls his approach "consistent naturalism or humanism", and says that it can be distinguished from both idealism and materialism, constituting at the same time their "unifying truth" (ihre beide vereinigende Wahrheit; KMSW p104).

It is on this basis, of an ethic rooted in the material reality of humankind's relationship with nature and in the relations that proceed from it, that we shall find Marx's and modern communism's distinctive approach to morality.