marx portrait

To accompany the newly-published paperback edition of The Quest for a Moral Compass,  I am running a series of extracts from the book. Previous extracts were on Joshua Greene’s idea of two modes of moral thinking and on whether universalism is merely a form of Western particularism.  This extract, from Chapter 13, ‘The challenge of history’, examines Marx’s claim to be a moral thinker. You can buy The Quest for a Moral Compass in most bookshops, through Amazon or from my Pandaemonium bookstore.

From The Quest for a Moral Compass, pp 230-233, 235-238

In 1864, Karl Marx was one of a number of revolutionaries attempting to set up a Workingmen’s International Association (which eventually came to be known as the First International). He was unable to attend the first meetings in London that discussed the Association’s declaration of principles. When he finally saw the draft that had been drawn up in his absence, Marx was shocked. It was, he wrote in a letter to friend and comrade Friedrich Engels, ‘a fearfully cliché-ridden, badly written and totally unpolished preamble pretending to be a declaration of principles’. Marx redrafted the declaration, as well as a set of rules for the new Association. His fellow revolutionaries, he told Engels, ‘adopted all my proposals. I was, however, obliged to insert two sentences about ‘duty’ and ‘right’, and ditto about ‘Truth, Morality and Justice’ in the preamble to the rules, but these are so placed that they can do no harm.’

Marx’s aversion to ideas of duty, right, truth, morality and justice could not have been made clearer. They are concepts that may have to be acknowledged for form’s sake, but must always be hidden away where ‘they can do no harm’. The German sociologist Werner Sombart, an early Marxist of whom Engels said that he was the only person who understood Capital, wrote that ‘Marxism is distinguished from all other socialist systems by its anti-ethical tendency. In all of Marxism from beginning to end, there is not a grain of ethics, and consequently no more of an ethical judgment than an ethical postulate.’

Why, then, talk of Marx in a book about moral thought? The question of Marx’s relationship to moral thought has been deeply controversial, particularly among Marxists. Many view Marxism, as Sombart did, as rejecting the very idea of ethics. Morality, Leon Trotsky wrote in his celebrated essay Their Morals and Ours, ‘more than any other form of ideology has a class character’. The ruling class ‘forces its ends upon society and habituates it to considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral.’ The capitalist class ‘could not have endured for even a week through force alone. It needs the cement of morality.’ Morality, as Thrasymachus might have said, is a scam, a set of rules invented by the ruling class to promote its own interests and to keep everyone else in check.

Yet, it is taxing to imagine a critique of capitalism that is not in some way moral. As Terry Eagleton has written of attempts to drive morality out of Marxism, it is then difficult to see ‘why tackling famines, combating racism or disarming nuclear missiles should be described as good’. Marx himself, for all his dismissal of bourgeois morality, liberally used normative language, condemning ‘robbery’, ‘slavery’ ‘suffering’ and ‘subjugation’, describing capitalism as ‘exploitation’, ‘brutalization,’ and ‘inhuman’, and celebrating ‘freedom’.

Marx, the ethicist George Brenkert observes, did not reject morality as such. Like Hegel, he saw morality not as fixed and timeless, standing above human societies, but as historical and changing, the product of social development. Unlike Hegel, however, Marx did not see history as the unfolding of the Spirit. Rather, in Engels’ celebrated phrase, Marx ‘set Hegel on his feet’, transforming Hegel’s idealism into a materialist vision of history. The driving force of history was human endeavour and, in particular, the class struggle. Nor did Marx see, as Hegel did, the Prussian state as the towering monument to the end of history. Rather, Marx insisted, capitalism had raised class struggle to its highest pitch, and the contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production would eventually see its overthrow and its replacement with communism. What was important to Marx was not, as it was for most moral philosophers, to define how people should behave in this society, but rather to consider how they should act to create a new one. Any notion of morality had to be inextricably linked to the idea of social transformation. Marx’s refused to deal directly with the traditional moral questions that occupied Kant, Hume, Mill and other modern moral philosophers because, in his eyes, such questions were irrelevant to the task of transcending capitalism.

marx adressing first international

Marx was not, however, an amoralist or an anti-moralist. He rejected morality based on ideas of duty or utility or self-interest or moral sense. He rejected the morality of ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’. He did not reject morality as such. His critique of capitalism was rooted in large part in his moral disgust at its impact upon the human spirit. To be human was, for Marx, to possess the capacity consciously to act upon and transform the natural world, to use one’s hands and mind in productive activity. Only through such activity, Marx suggested, do humans develop themselves. Marx, like Rousseau and Hegel, placed self-realization at the heart of his moral thinking. But humans, in Marx’s eyes, realized themselves specifically through their labour. By ‘acting on the external world and changing it’, he wrote, the human being ‘at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway.’

Under capitalism, according to Marx, labour becomes something to be despised rather than to be embraced. A worker, Marx writes, ‘does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind.’ To be human is to occupy one’s hands and mind. But under capitalism when one does this, when one works, one feels most estranged from oneself. The worker, Marx writes, ‘only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating’. But ‘in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal.’ Hence under capitalism, ‘What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.’

Far from dismissing moral claims, Marx was deeply driven by the questions of human flourishing, of how humans can best realize themselves, about the kind of life best suited for a human being. What makes communism the ‘good society’ is, for Marx, ‘the creative manifestation of life arising from the free development of all abilities of the whole person.’ Many people would, of course, snort at the idea of this being any description at all of a communist society. Others might dismiss it as a hopelessly romantic vision. Such criticisms are, however, immaterial to an understanding of Marx and morality. This is how Marx defines a good society, and he does so not in terms of duty or consequence or self-interest or moral sense but in terms of the development of the whole person. It is a concept of morality distinct from that of modern philosophers such as Locke or Kant or Bentham or Mill, but one close to that of Aristotle and the virtue ethicists. For Aristotle, as for most Greek philosophers, the central question of morality was indeed that of the ‘development of all abilities of the whole person’. For Marx, however, unlike for Aristotle, the key question was not about how best to foster human flourishing in this society within a given structure. It was, rather, about the kind of society necessary to allow humans to flourish in this fashion. This was why his attitude to morality can appear so ambivalent.

* * * * *

At the heart of Marx’s moral critique is his understanding of human nature and of what he regarded as the alienation of humans from their nature. Marx never uses the phrase ‘human nature’. He talks rather of Gattungswesen, a concept Marx borrowed from a fellow Young Hegelian, Ludwig Feuerbach, and which is usually translated as ‘species-being’ or ‘species-essence’. The distinction between human nature and species-being is a distinction between a view of human drives and dispositions as fixed and eternal and a view of the human essence as not simply given by nature but also as shaped by history. It is also a distinction between the idea of humans as individuals who happen to live in societies and that of humans as social being whose individualism only becomes expressed through society. In turning ‘Spirit’ into ‘species-being’, Marx set Hegel on his feet and saw both history and human nature in materialist, not idealist, terms.

In the premodern world, Marx argued, nature dominates human society and human self-awareness is little developed. Capitalism transforms humanity’s relationship to nature. It raises the productive forces making possible hitherto undreamed-of social development, accomplishing ‘wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals’. But it also separates humanity from nature and human beings from each other. The market economy emerged in part through the brutal enclosures of the common land, which helped create a class of landless labourers who had nothing to sell but their labour. For the first time in history, the majority of people in society were denied direct access to the means of production and subsistence. Labour became a commodity, sold on the market, much like the products of labour, whether apples or cars, jeans or sofas. Workers no longer enjoyed the right to dispose of the goods they produced. They had became separated from the products of their labour. In feudal society, humans were dominated by nature, and the peasant was subordinate to his master, often in a most brutal fashion. Yet the peasant generally worked his own land and produced most of the things he needed for himself and his family. Whereas a premodern craftsman ‘makes use of a tool’ and are ‘parts of a living mechanism’, in the factory system, ‘the machine makes use of him’; factories ‘mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine.’

The worker, Marx claimed, becomes ‘alienated’ from his nature. Again, he ‘sets Hegel on his feet’. Hegel had seen alienation in terms of estrangement from God, in humanity’s dependence on a being that lies in a transcendent sphere, a sphere of perfection that human consciousness could never reach. Marx regards the worker as alienated from the object he produces because it is owned and disposed of by another, the capitalist. He is also alienated from himself because the product of his labour ‘exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him’ and ‘it becomes a power on its own confronting him’ so that ‘the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien’.

LS Lowry's Returning from Work, 1929. LS Lowry's Returning from Work, 1929. lowry returning

Capitalism, Marx argued, makes people appear like objects, and objects to possess agency and power. In capitalist society, individuals relate to other individuals less through mutual personal relations than through the buying and selling of the commodities they produce or consume. In a feudal society, social relationships were often relationships of domination and subordination, but they were obviously relationships between concrete individuals. Under capitalism, however, the thousands of people that enter an individual’s life every day do so not directly but rather through the commodities they produce and he consumes – through the clothes she wears, the food she eats, the technologies she uses. Commodities, at the same time, appear to take on a life of their own. It is through them that humans relate to each other and it is through them that life appears to possess both meaning and shape. We talk of markets making decisions, or of oil prices dictating government policy.

Marx’s critique is powerfully moral, not in the sense of establishing rules of right and wrong conduct but in the older sense of describing what it is for humans to be able to flourishing, to be able to realize themselves fully. It was also deeply cynical about the very idea of morality, or rather of what it had come to represent. For Marx, the concept of alienation, and of human flourishing, could not be wrenched away from the project of social transformation, of the overthrowing of capitalism itself.

* * * * *

For Marx, the point of revolutionary change was to create the conditions for self-realization. In reality, the revolutions made in Marx’s name formed societies that far from fostering self-realization, estranged and alienated their citizens, denying them basic freedoms and liberties. From the Soviet gulags to the killing fields of Cambodia, from the tyranny of East Germany to the medieval horrors of North Korea, actually exiting communism has been, by almost any moral standards to which one might subscribe, deeply immoral.

The reality not just of communism but also of the process of achieving it, some suggest, raises deep problems for the idea of a Marxist morality. ‘The claim of Marxism to be a morally distinctive standpoint’ argues Alasdair MacIntyre, for many years a Communist Party member, ‘is undermined by Marxism’s own moral history’. Whenever ‘Marxists have had to take explicit moral stances’, they have ‘always fallen back into relatively straightforward versions of Kantianism or utilitarianism’. There is in Marx, MacIntyre suggests, an absence of thought about the moral underpinnings of the project of social transformation. Marx excoriated the moral consequences of capitalism. He wrote of how human nature might flourish under communism. But he wrote little of the norms by which revolutionary social movements should be judged. One result was the wrenching apart of politics and morality in those movements and societies influenced by Marx. Social change came to be seen purely in political terms and its moral content defined solely in terms of the success of its political ends. The moral case for any action was that it furthered the cause. As a result, MacIntyre suggests, there is a moral hollowness to Marxism that could only be filled by looking elsewhere for moral answers, in particular to utilitarian ideas that the revolutionary means were justified by the revolutionary ends.

soviet propaganda poster

Whatever the criticisms thrown at Marxism, and at its moral qualities, Marx’s critique of capitalism seems to many as vital today as it was in the days of the 1848 revolutions. Indeed, the financial collapse and economic crisis of 2008-9 led even the most hardened capitalists to pull off their bookshelves cobwebbed editions of Capital and Grundrisse. Barely a week went by without newspaper op-ed piece or a TV interview declaring that Marx had been right all along.

Yet in the very resurrection of Marx was revealed also his weakness. ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways’, Marx had famously written in his Theses on Feuerbach; ‘the point is to change it.’ It is a line inscribed on Marx’s grave. For Marx, self-realization was only possible through the overthrow of capitalism. By 2008, however, the possibility of change (at least in the way that Marx would have understood it) had become negligibly small. The depth of the economic crisis led to talk of a ‘crisis of capitalism’. And yet there was no political challenge to capitalism. Workers’ organizations had been destroyed, the left had been imploded, as had the idea that there could be an alternative to the market system. The resurrection of Marx challenged none of this. Those who turn to Marx these days look upon him not as a prophet of capitalism’s demise but as a poet of its moral corruption.   But to what extent does a moral critique that is explicitly hitched to a social critique remain meaningful when the possibilities of acting upon that social critique seem so to have faded? That, perhaps, is the most difficult question to be asked of Marx’s moral thought.


The images are, from top down, portrait of Karl Marx; etching of Marx addressing meeting of the First International, artist unknown; LS Lowry’s ‘Returning from work’; a Soviet propaganda poster ‘Strike against the false worker’.


  1. > Marx excoriated the moral consequences of capitalism…but he wrote little of the norms by which revolutionary social movements should be judged.

    That would’ve required, among other things, a tentative, moral weighing of various go-forward options, rather than the implicit assumption that getting rid of capitalism would naturally cure the vast majority of our moral ills. Just the huge variation in Maoism, Trotskyism, the various Central- and South American versions, and Marxist-Leninism – not as abuses of Marxism, but as practical, more or less sincere attempts at implementation- shows how empty social critique can be as overall guidance of behavior. Marx erred in assuming he could ignore morality (while splaying normatives at every turn) because he worked almost exclusively on moral issues that were fundamental, existing, and overwhelming. By contrast, at the initiation of America, a great deal of explicit thought about go-forward morality occurred, with a result that was based mostly on the success of precedent, and partly based on their immediate concerns.

    I’m recalling a quite funny mumble-in-the-beard comment from Noam Chomsky about anarcho-syndicalism being the answer, when pressed by an interviewer; he didn’t even sound convinced himself, and it was the most uncomfortable I’ve seen him. For me, Marx is extremely useful, in the same way that Chomsky and Frank Zappa and H.L. Mencken are inspiring and useful. They provide a lens on modern life that uncovers injustice that we have become inured to, or that we ignore through lack of information or poor interpretation. Their work is a very important half-truth, which I suppose is why a treatment of Marx belonged in a book about morality. But a very real and different moral work, and I would submit a more difficult one, must commence simultaneously to critique to engender human possibility. Among most activists of all stripes, that’s when the line goes dead. The focus on what’s wrong instead of how to do right makes for a lot of inefficiency, as complex problems are systematically dumbed down into evil-vs-me, the listening public senses the weakness of half-arguments, and little recognition is evident that the cure can be worse than the disease.

  2. I know many people thought the 2008-2009 crisis was a sucker punch to capitalism, but I fail to see how the economic collapse had much of anything to do with Marx’s critique of capitalism as an economic system. First, the statement is assuming the U.S. is a capitalist system, which seems a far-reaching assumption since, although the U.S. economy does carry many market-oriented aspects, the U.S. bears many traits of a blended system between socialism and capitalism. Further, the causes of the financial crisis are still being argued, but they tend to surround the ideas of the protected oligopoly of credit rating agencies, the political pushes toward home-ownership for all people, and relaxed credit conditions for financial firms borrowing and issuing MBS. Many of these blamed causes don’t make sense to tie to “capitalism” itself, but rather to the complex product of political and financial institutions from prior years. But to more directly focus on Marx, his ideas of alienation and exploitation have always baffled me. It’s clear what he means in theory, but in practice it seems so contradictory. And how does he categorize different classes of people so broadly? How much does a business owner have to work or how little do they have to make to be considered working class? His arguments on property are just so strange. I’m not a big fan of capitalism either, I’d just rather spend my time reading Adam Smith or F.A. Hayek for something more enlightening.

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