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Alienation: Is There a Marxian Ethic? < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society
Part I, Philosophical Introduction
By Bertell Ollman

Chapter 4
Is There a Marxian Ethic?

The question Marx set out to answer in Capital is 'Why is labor represented by the value of its product and labor-time by the magnitude of that value?"'1 If Marx had succeeded in writing the work he planned to do on ethics, I believe the question which would have occupied most of his attention is 'Why are approval and condemnation represented in our society as value judgments?' Marx's critique of the capitalist economy is essentially an explanation of how existing forms of production, distribution, exchange and consumption arose, and how they are dependent on one another and on the character of human activity and achievement in areas far removed from the economy proper. Any critique of ethics would likewise have concentrated on showing how the distinctive forms of our ethical life, such as treating approval and disapproval as value judgments, are internally related to the whole social fabric out of which they arose. Why is this aspect of reality organized in this manner into these forms?

Such an approach is already apparent in some of Marx's brief comments on this subject. He says, for example, that in bourgeois ethics speaking and loving lose their characteristic significance and 'are interpreted as expressions and manifestations of a third artificially introduced Relation, the Relation of utility'. According to Marx, 'something is demanded of the individual's power or capacity to do anything which is a foreign product, a Relation determined by social conditions—and this is the utility Relation'.2 In short, a social relation has become a thing in the form of a principle, and moreover a thing which exerts important influence over people's thinking and action.

Unfortunately, this approach to the problem of ethics has received little attention from Marxist scholars. Instead, they have generally been content to elaborate on the following claims: '(1) moral values change; (2) they change in accordance with society's productive forces and its economic relations; and (3) the dominant moral values at any given time are those of the dominant economic class'.3 As part of this case, concepts such as 'good', 'right' and 'justice' are shown to derive their very meaning from the conditions of life and corresponding interests of the men who use them.4

One result of avoiding the larger question of why acts of approval and condemnation in capitalist society appear as value judgments, as deductions from absolute principles, is that Marx's own acts of approval and condemnation defy easy classification. Without wishing to probe too deeply into what is a vast and growing subject, the unorthodox position taken in the last two chapters requires some clarification of what have been called 'value judgments' in Marx's own works. Is there a Marxian ethic, no doubt different from other ethical systems in what it is based on and in what it advocates but constructed like them and performing the same general function? The debate on this subject has been badly marred by the existence of several different (and not always recognized) standards for deciding. Depending on which one or few are chosen, Marx may be taken as being, or not being, or both being and not being an ethical thinker. For example, if we are asking whether Marx considered he had ethical views and/or used such stock ethical terms as 'good', 'bad', 'evil', 'value judgment', etc., clearly the answer is that Marx is not an ethical thinker. We come quickly to the same conclusion if our standard is whether Marx is moralizing, that is concerned with scolding and praising as ends in themselves.

On the other hand, if we are asking whether Marx expresses feeling of approval and disapproval in his works, the answer can only that Marx is an ethical thinker. The same answer applies if the standard is whether Marx takes sides with one of the classes he is describing, and again, if it is a matter of whether he uses his writings to incite people to act. But perhaps the most important standard that has been used concerns the character of Marx's own personal commitment. Is Marx motivated, it is asked, by some idea of the 'good'? Phrased in this manner, once more I am inclined to respond—though with some hesitation—that Marx is an ethical thinker. However, unlike most writers who adopt this position, I find it difficult to decide just what is his idea of the 'good'. Is Marx's morality a matter of defending the interests of the proletariat, whom he thinks of as 'the hardest working and most miserable class'?5 Does he believe that whatever contributes to thei''''r interest is 'good' and whatever harms them is 'bad'? Or is humanity the cause Marx believes he must serve? Lafargue recounts Marx's statement that scientists should 'put their knowledge to the service of humanity'.6

There are still third and fourth possibilities (among the more plausible interpretations), which I shall treat as one—as do most writers who offer them. Is it communist society and the human fulfillment which occurs there that Marx regards as 'good' and 'just'? An affirmative reply has recently been given by Charles Taylor who claims that 'Marxism has a definite standard of value, of higher and lower… The basis of this standard of value lies in the teleological notion of human nature: a stage or form of society is higher than another because it involves a greater realization of human goals.'7 My own difficulty with all these questions is not that I find it hard to answer 'yes', but that I find I hard to answer 'no' to any of them. In other words, if Marx's theories—including too his statements of approval and disapproval, his siding with the proletariat, and his incitements to action—rest on some prior moral commitment, I believe that this commitment can be stated equally well in terms of working class interests, humanity, communism and human fulfillment. With this admission, however, where have we arrived? We have simply arrived back at the theories from which we had originally set out. That is, once what is taken to be the 'good' involves us with so many factors, the relations between these factors needs to be explained, and the explanation situates us within the very theories from which we thought to stand apart. What is the link, for example, between serving working class interest and serving humanity, and between either, or both, and the social and human achievements of communism? In answering such questions one must offer the very theories on man and society which, on this model, are supposed to be the results of Marx's ethical views.

There is still another objection to ascribing an ethic to Marx on the basis of his commitment to human fulfillment or any of the other goals listed. This is that it is easily mistaken for a description of what Marx actually and daily does, rather than a way of viewing his work. Neither Taylor nor Maximilien Rubel, who takes a similar position, sees Marx measuring each new question as it comes up alongside an absolute standard and deciding which position to take accordingly.8 Yet, both men have been misunderstood in this way. This misunderstanding arises because what is called 'ethics' is generally taken to involve a conscious choice; to act on the basis of a principle, under any guise, is to decide to do so. An ethic assumes that for each question studied there was a period before the standard was applied when one's attitude was neutral, or at least less certain than afterwards; and also that there is a possibility that one could have chosen otherwise.

Robert Tucker rightly remarks that ethical inquiry (and hence ethics) is only possible on the basis of a suspended commitment. But Marx never suspends his commitments; nor does he ever consciously choose to approve or disapprove; nor does it make any sense to say of the matters he studied that he might have judged otherwise. Tucker's conclusion is that Marx is not an ethical, but religious thinker with a 'vision of the world as an arena of conflict between good and evil forces'.9 However, if expressing approval and favoring certain goals are insufficient grounds for ascribing an ethics to Marx, his conception of class struggle coupled with his version of the future society are hardly enough to burden him with a religion. But if Tucker is unlucky in the alternative he offers, his criticism of attempts t treat Marxism as an ethical theory or as the product of an ethical theory remains valid.

The foregoing remarks may be summarized as follows: all ethical systems, that is all those ways of thinking which are generally accepted as such, have a basis for judgment which lies outside that which is to be judged. This results in a suspended commitment until the 'facts' have been gathered and their relation to the standard for judgment clarified. The evaluation, when it comes, is a matter of conscious choice. Our problem then reduces itself to this: do we want to say of Marxism, where none of these things apply, that it either is or contains an ethical theory? One might, but then the limited sense in which this claim is meant would have to be made explicit.10


II

I prefer to say that Marx did not have an ethical theory. But how then to explain the approval and disapproval which he expresses in his works, the fact that he sided with the proletariat and incited them to overthrow the system? How, too, it may be asked, do I account for his attachment to the cause of humanity and to the ideas of communism and human fulfillment? In asking such question, however, one must be careful not to assume at the outset the form the answer must take. For this is what happens if one is saying, 'Here are two worlds, facts and values; how do you link them?' But to accept that reality is halved in this way is to admit failure from the start. On the contrary, the relational conception which was discussed in the last two chapters required that Marx consider what was known, advocated, condemned or done by everyone, himself included, as internally related. Every facet of the real world, and people's actions and thoughts as elements in it, are mutually dependent on each other for what they are, and must be understood accordingly.

The logical distinction which is said to exist between facts and values is founded on the belief that it is possible to conceive of one without the other. Given a particular fact, the argument runs, one may without contradiction attach any value to it. The fact itself does not entail a specific value. Historically the view that moral beliefs are contingent has tended to go along with the view that they are also arbitrary. On this model, all judgment depends in the last instance on the independent se of values which each individual, for reasons best known to himself, brings to the situation. The ethical premise is not only a final arbiter but a mysterious one, defying sociological and even psychological analysis. Though some recent defenders of orthodoxy have sought to muddle the distinction between fact and value with talk of 'context', 'function', 'real reference', 'predisposition', etc., the logical line drawn in conception remains. Yet, if one cannot conceive of anything one chooses to call a fact (because it is an open ended relation) without bringing in evaluative elements (and vice versa), the very problem orthodox thinkers have set out to answer cannot be posed.

Moreover, on Marx's view, the real judgments which are made in any situation are a function of that situation and the particular individuals active in it. Thus, the very notion that it is logically permissible to take any attitude toward a given 'fact' is itself a judgment inherent in the circumstances out of which it emerges. Rather than being logically independent of what is, any choice—as well as the idea that one has a choice is linked by innumerable threads to the real world, including the life, class interests, and character of the person acting. Judgments can never be severed, neither practically nor logically, from their contexts and the number of real alternatives which they allow. In this perspective, what is called the fact-value distinction, appears as a form of self-deception, an attempt to deny what has already been done by claiming that it could not have been done or still remains to do.

Marx would not have denied that the statements "This is what exists' and 'What exists is good' or 'This is what should exist', mark some distinction, but he would not have called it one of fact and value. If we define "fact" as a statement of something known to have happened or knowable, and 'value' as that property in any thing for which we esteem or condemn it As man is a creature of needs and purposes, however much they may vary for different people, it could not be otherwise. Because everything we know (whether in its immediacy or in some degree of extension through conditions and results) bears some relation to our needs and purposes, there is nothing we know toward which we not have attitudes, either for, against or indifferent.

Likewise, our 'values' are all attached to what we take to be the 'facts', and could not be what they are apart from them. It is not simply that the 'facts' affect our values', and our 'values' affect what we take to be the 'facts—both respectable common sense positions—but that, in any given case, each includes the other and is part of what is meant by the other's concept. In these circumstances, to try to split their union into logically distinct halves is to distort their real character.

Followers of Marx have always known that what people approve or condemn can only be understood through a deep-going social analysis, particularly of their needs and interest as members of a class. What emerges from the foregoing is that the forms in which approval and condemnation appear—like setting up absolute principles or values—must be understood through the same kind of analysis. This is not the place to undertake such an analysis, but it may be useful to sketch its broad outlines. The attempt to establish values which apply equally to everyone results, to al large extent, from the need to defuse growing class conflict arising from incompatible interest in a class-ridden society. To apply values equally is to abstract from the unequal conditions in which people live and the incompatible interest that result. The main effort of capitalist ideology has always been directed to dismissing or playing down this incompatibility. The abstractions with which such ideology abounds are so many attempts to sever the class-affected 'facts' from the judgments and actions that ordinarily follow upon their comprehension.

Marx goes so far as to suggest that the fact—value distinction is itself a symptom of man's alienation in modern capitalist society: 'It stems from the very nature of estrangement that each sphere applies to men a different and opposite yardstick—ethics one and political economy another.'11 A chief characteristic of alienation, as we shall learn, is the separation of what does not allow separation without distortion. The organic unity of reality has been exchanged for distinct spheres of activity whose interrelations in the social whole can no longer be ascertained. Removed from their real context, the individual's relations with nature and society, taken one at a time, appear other than they are. As part of this process, many, often contradictory yardsticks for measuring achievement come into existence for different areas of life, making all broad plans of reform seem 'illogical' or 'irrational' in some respect of other. In this context, it would appear that altogether too much attention has been paid to the biased and false message in capitalist ideology and too little to what is predisposed in the forms of though themselves, to the class advantage contained in accepted rules of thinking. For any attempt to universalize a moral code, whatever its content, by undercutting the reality of class conflict only succeeds in serving capitalist ends.

As far as Marx's own work is concerned, those remarks which strike us as being an evaluative nature are internally relate facets of all he says and knows, which in turn are internally tied to his life and all surrounding circumstances—not as an exception, but because everything in the world is related in this way. However, being conscious of this, Marx integrated his remarks of approval and disapproval more closely into his system than have most other thinkers, making any surgical division into facts and values so much more destructive of his meaning. For example, Marx claims that when a communist stands in front of 'a crowd of scrofulous, overworked and consumptive starvelings', he sees 'the necessity, and at the same time the condition, of a transformation both of industry and of the social structure'.12 Marx is asserting that for those who share his outlook these 'facts' contain their own condemnation and a call to do something about them. If an individual ''''chooses otherwise, it is not because he had made a contrary moral judgment, but because the particular relations in which he stands (the class to which he belongs, his personal history, etc.) have led him to a different appreciation of the facts.13

Such internal relations between what others take to be factual and evaluative elements are also apparent in an early comment Marx makes on the import of religious criticism: 'The criticism of religion ends', he says, 'with the doctrine that man is the supreme being for man. It ends, therefore, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all those conditions in which man is an abased, enslaved, abandoned, contemptible being'.14 Marx's analysis of what religion is does not prepare us for an evaluation but includes it. And he believes that to fully accept one is necessarily to accept the other—because the latter, the judgment, is internally related to the whole set of information which makes it both possible and necessary. Though it is not always so obvious, all Marx's descriptions may be treated in a similar manner. There are no 'morally neutral' statements in Marxism (which is no more than he would claim for the statements of any other thinker).

What then is the best way to characterize what are taken to be evaluative elements in Marx's works? On the basis of the preceding analysis, I would say they are straightforward descriptions of the factor of factors before him which he makes on the basis of its function in the problem under consideration, set in the larger context of what he knows to be true of the world. Such knowledge, as indicated earlier, includes where things are tending as well as where thy have come from. Alternatively, one may say Marx is individuating from the whole information which contains elements that are ordinarily placed in each sphere, rather than relating logically independent facts and values. With the philosophy of internal relations, the problem is never how to relate separate entities but how to disentangle a relation or group of relations from the total and necessary configuration in which they exist.

Thus, in asserting that the workers are degraded, Marx is not making an evaluation on the basis of what he sees but describing what the workers are; but what they are is a Relation which includes, among other things, their ties to other classes who are suffering less, the state of poor people before capitalism, and the achievements which everyone will be capable of under communism. Viewed in this perspective, that is conceiving what we would consider external objects of comparison as parts of the workers themselves, the assertion that the workers are degraded is a fair description of their condition.

Treating the achievements of people in communism as one part of what workers are depends not only on conceiving of workers a Relation that incorporates both their real past and future potential but on analyzing this potential in a manner that uncovers these communist achievements. Projecting present patterns and trends forward, given the new priorities that would be established by a socialist government, Marx's study of the past is likewise an inquiry into the future, into the probable destiny of mankind. He then uses this vision of communism, along with the other comparisons mentioned, to help orient himself to the problems of his day.

Finally, what applies to Marx's statements applies equally to his concepts. That is, as his ideas about the world which find expressions in his terms, Marx's concepts convey the real relations which he takes to be in the world; and, in so far as these relations include elements which some would consider of an evaluative nature, these concepts can be said to convey in what them mean the very 'judgments' that Marx ordinarily makes with them. It is in this way, we will recall, that concepts were said to have a truth value apart from the statements in which they are found. Marx's concept 'proletariat', for example, contains as part of its meaning the same degradation and other 'moral' qualities which he uncovered in his analysis of the Relation, proletariat. The truth value of this concept, therefore, depends on the validity of this analysis.

It should now be possible to understand Marx's otherwise confusing admission in The Communist Manifesto that 'the theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from an historical movement going on under our very eyes.'15 Marx is concerned to explain why capitalist economic, political and ideological forms appear when they do and what general attitudes result from people's interest as members of a particular class. He never, however, goes beyond stating the relations involved when he himself approves or condemns anything, or when he concludes from a situation what must be done. It is no coincidence that other thinkers who possess a philosophy of internal relations —Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, Dietzgen, etc.—have likewise foresworn the fact—value distinction; for partaking of this philosophical tradition any value judgment would have to be understood as internally related to what they know, and hence as an expression of all that makes it both possible and necessary. In these circumstances, 'Marxian ethics' is clearly a misnomer is so far it refers to Marx as opposed to certain 'Marxists' who came afterwards.

As with any misnomer in the human sciences, 'Marxist Ethics' is not without its ideological consequences. For to accept that Marxism either is or contains an ethic, to admit that Marx operated from fixed principles (whatever content one gives them), is to put Marx on the same logical plane as his opponents. It is to suggest that Marx, for all his effort at historical explanation and despite his explicit denial, criticized them because he favored different principles. In which case, the capitalist ideologist easily removes the noose Marx has place around his neck by the simple device of rejecting what passes for the latter's principles. Either he declines the honor of serving the goals of communism or of human fulfillment as understood by Marx because he doesn't consider this state of affairs possible, or he refuses to serve the interests of the proletariat or of humanity because—for reasons best known to himself—he prefers other ends, whether of this or the next world. To berate such refusals as irrational only begs the question, as it uses the very ends put aside as guides to what is rational The crucial fault comes earlier in accepting that Marx's position, and the criticism evolved from it, is based on any principles whatsoever.

It is in this manner, by permitting Marx's opponents to free themselves from the untenable position in which his criticism places them, that attributing an ethic to Marxism inevitably serves the ends of the bourgeoisie. This is the real danger, for example, in espousing 'Marxist Humanism' (quite apart from its dubious standing as a 'scientific concept'), whatever the short-term political benefits in Eastern Europe of this reformulation.16

The debate between Marx and the ideologists of capitalism is and could only be a debate carried on at cross purposes, and this fact must not be lost sight of through a too facile use of labels. Properly speaking, there is now clash of judgments or goals involved here. While capitalist thinkers belabor Marx for an overemphasis on economic factors and—without noticing any inconsistency—for idealism, Marx tries to trace their beliefs and principles (including the forms taken) and the arguments based on them to the real world out of which they arose. Marx's object is, in the broadest sense, to show that they have done something other than they think, that what they have said generally results from and functions other than they know, and through this analysis itself to bring readers to another kind of understanding and action. The enormous critical power inherent in Marxism is diluted whenever its scientific character is misrepresented.17


  1. Capital, I, 80.

  2. Die Deutsche Ideologie, Werke, III, 394-5.

  3. Howard Selsam, Socialism and Ethics (New York, 1943), p. 52.

  4. The best study of the social and economic origins of stock ethical terms is William Ash's Marxism and Moral Concepts (New York, 1964).

  5. Quoted in M. Rubel, 'Introduction à l'éthique marxienne', Pages choisies pour une éthique socialiste (Paris, 1948), p. xl.

  6. Lafargue, 'Reminiscences of Marx', Reminiscences, p. 70.

  7. Charles Taylor, 'Marxism and Empiricism', in British Analytical Philosophy, ed. Bernard Williams and Alan Montefiore (London, 1966), p. 244.

  8. The fullest statement of Rubel's views on Marx's ethics is found in the 'Introduction' mentioned above (see note 5), though the role of ethics in Marx's thought also constitutes a major theme in his Karl Marx, essai de biographie intellectuelle (Paris, 1957).

  9. Robert Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge, 1964), pp. 21-2. Tucker also tries to make a case that Marxism is structurally a religious system (pp. 22-4), but the parallels which do exist are superficial, and drawing any firm conclusions from them only serves to hamper our understanding of both Marxism and religion.

  10. Taylor, who defines 'morality' as 'a doctrine touching the fundamental good and the way to realize it, where "fundamental" good is taken to mean a good which is inescapable and universally the good of man', can treat Marxism as a moral system, for communism does apply to everyone alive at the time and Marx's conception of human fulfillment serves as the guarantee that what occurs in communism is for the best. Taylor, 'Marxism and Empiricism', British Analytical Philosophy, pp. 244-5. However, for reasons given in the text, this strikes me as an overly broad definition of morality, and one likely to occasion misunderstanding of the views Taylor is trying to elucidate.

  11. 1844 Manuscripts, p. 121.

  12. The German Ideology, p. 37.

  13. In one form or another, the necessary tie between 'facts' and 'values' for example, has commented that 'in opposition to the majority of the democratic theories of his time, Marx believed that values could not be contemplated in isolation from facts but necessarily depended upon the manner in which the facts were viewed'. Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx (London, 1960), p. 6. Once this is recognized, however, what remains to be asked is how could Marx do this and what are its implications for his other views?

  14. 'Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie', Werke, I, 385.

  15. The Communist Manifesto, pp. 31-2.

  16. Althusser rightly criticizes 'humanism' as a concept that does not permit an adequate comprehension of its subject matter. Althusser, Pour Marx, p. 256.

  17. For helpful summaries of the positions taken by some of the major writers on our subject, see Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx, pp. 11ff., and Eugene Kamenka, The Ethical Foundations of Marxism (London, 1962) pp. 2ff.