27 Marxist Ethics (1937)

That Marxism is a Metaphysic, a doctrine of guiding principles, a mingling of logic and ethics to the detriment of both, is shown by its conception of the advance of things to “higher” and “higher” levels, its belief in a world which, as Eastman puts it,note is evolving “by its own inevitable dialectic” toward something “higher”, toward something “more magnificent”. There is dispute as to whether Marx and Engels intended to dispense with philosophy and ethics in favour of their science of society, though, indeed, it is only by an implicit recognition of positive truth and positive goodness that even the term “higher” can appear to have any meaning. But it may be questioned in the first place, whether they can have any logical or ethical theory, whether any instrumentalism, treating truth and goodness as alike relative, alike approximate realisations of purpose, can stand examination — if only into its own truth. No doubt, it may be called a philosophy, in that it suggests answers to certain philosophic problems, but the question is whether it can ever be stated consistently.

The nature of the guiding principles, and of the relation which social theory can be supposed to have to philosophy and ethics, is indicated by Engels in the following way. The developments in science and the social struggles of the early part of the nineteenth century, he argues,note “made imperative a new examination of all past history, and then it was seen that all past history was the history of class struggles, that these warring classes of society are always the product of the modes of production and exchange, in a word, of the economic conditions of their time; that therefore the economic structure of society always forms the real basis from which, in the last analysis, is to be explained the whole superstructure of legal and political institutions, as well as of religious, philosophical and other conceptions of each historical period”. It might be considered that this economic interpretation applies only to the genesis of philosophical and ethical theories and has no bearing on their truth, that it is not in itself a philosophical or ethical theory, or any substitute for one — though, even so, one might question the interpretation so long as “the last analysis” was not forthcoming. But Engels would permit of no such distinction; for him the

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truth of the conceptions precisely resides in their relation to the basis. As he says elsewhere (Feuerbach, Kerr edition, pp. 96-8), in discussing “the revolutionary side of Hegel's philosophy”, its “great foundation thought” (of the world as made up of processes in which “there is carried out in the end a progressive development”), “has, particularly since the time of Hegel, so dominated the thoughts of the mass of men that, generally speaking, it is now hardly denied. And if one proceeds steadily in his investigations from this historic point, then a stop is put, once and for all, to the demand for final solutions and for eternal truths; one is firmly conscious of the necessary limitations of all acquired knowledge, of its hypothetical nature, owing to the circumstances under which it has been gained” (my italics). And he goes on to say that: “One cannot be imposed upon any longer by the inflated insubstantial antitheses of the older metaphysics of true and false, good and evil, identical and differentiated, necessary and accidental; one knows that these antitheses have only a relative significance, that that which is recognised as true now, has its concealed and later-developing false side, just as that which is recognised as false, its true side, by virtue of which it can later on prevail as the truth; that so-called necessity is made up of the merely accidental, and that the acknowledged accidental is the form behind which necessity conceals itself and so on.”

It is clear enough that Engels does not consider that this doctrine of his “has its concealed and later-developing false side”, but is putting it forward as absolutely true; otherwise, anything might transpire, even the reinstatement of the “older metaphysics”, in the further development of thought. But this is only an illustration of the impossibility of making anything of the “relative significance” of any antithesis or conditioned view; if it is not to remain utterly vague, if its “limitations” are to be indicated, an absolute, not a relative, statement must be made. It appears also that, on this view, there will be a confounding not merely of logic and ethics but of all theories whatsoever; they will all rank as expressions of the basis, and even if (as is not the case) there could still be distinctions of degree, it would only be degrees of expressiveness, and what was legal and what political, what religious and what philosophical, would not appear.

There is no ground, then, for Sidney Hook's distinction between the philosophies of Hegel and Marx in that while, for the former, “values were objectively grounded in the nature of things so that he could delude himself into believing that his philosophy was disinterested and free from any presuppositions”, the latter “denied that any philosophy as normative inquiry could be disinterested and frankly avowed his own presuppositions and bias” (From Hegel to Marx, p. 26). The difference is only in the norms selected, in the things chosen as “most expressive”, and, while the one choice is as arbitrary as the other, the expression is supposed to be real in either case. This becomes still clearer as Hook proceeds. “When Marx speaks of philosophy he is referring to ethical,

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political or social philosophynote and the metaphysical disguises in which they often masquerade. That is why he speaks of philosophical method as criticism [throughout his Critique of Hegel's Rechtsphilosophie]. It is a criticism which reveals the values and attitudes, the starting point and secret wishes of our thought. It is a sociology of values investigating the social roots and conditions of what human beings desire. It is not an axiology of values deducing what human beings ought to do from self-evident first principles. Philosophy, then, is a criticism of standpoints and methods in the light of the conditions under which they emerge and the purposes which they serve.” But Hegel's Phenomenology is precisely a criticism of standpoints in so far as they serve the purpose of organising experience, and his Logic is an exposition of the various organising principles or categories as progressive representations of “the Idea”. And it is as such representations also that the various institutions and conditions of society appear in his ethical and historical works. Even, therefore, if Marx's class theory is sounder socially, there is no difference on the philosophical side, no difference in “objectivity”; the difference is only in what the two force on philosophy as “higher”, more expressive of reality. The common error lies in the treatment of philosophy as normative, of truth as relative, as degree of adequacy, and the doctrine of “class ideologies” is in no better case than any other relativistic theory.

What “light”, we may ask, do their conditions and purposes cast on standpoints and methods? Is anything more in question than the fact that they have these conditions and purposes? And is this not a matter of objective truth — A brings about B, X does not bring about Y? The question is evaded by the introduction of “needs”. “The new philosophy will triumph, not merely because it represents objective truth in the Pickwickian sense in which truth is relevant to ultimate questions of value, but because it fulfils the needs of human beings and the social conditions which generate those needs” (p. 27). In Marx's own words, “Theory becomes realised in a people only in so far as it is the realisation of its needs”. This, however, does not at all affect the question of objective truth, not in a “Pickwickian” sense but in the straightforward sense of what is the case. If Marx means that a people thinks what it needs to think, still it does think that and think it true. If he means that it thinks that something is what it needs, again the question is whether that is what it needs. And, if the latter is the meaning, it becomes pointless to say that “Each class develops an ideology which it holds to be objectively true, and around which it seeks to rally society at large”; for there would be nothing to hinder all ideologies

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from being objectively true, though there might be something to hinder all classes from having their needs satisfied. But, if the former is the meaning, there need be no conflict between classes except a difference of opinion. It would appear that it is by a confusion of the two meanings that ideology is being substituted for truth, relativism for positive philosophy.

The philosophy of “needs” secures readiest acceptance in its ethical application, since relative theories have always prevailed in this field and positive ethics receives little recognition even now. It is not surprising that under those circumstances there is a widespread doubt whether there is such a subject as ethics. But, in Marx's case, the doubt as to whether his views permitted of ethics could too readily be extended to a doubt of the possibility of his having a philosophy, and Hook maintains that it is wrong to say that he had no place for any ethics in his philosophy of social activity. “For Marx no social life is possible without human consciousness. And there is no characteristically human consciousness without ethical ideals of some kind. But Marx went on to inquire what the source of these ideals is, when, why and where they change, and what provided relative justification of any ideal in the present.… Against the abstract morality of Kant and Christ, Marx held that ethics represents a series of demands, not a series of demonstrations or intuitions. His ethics is a class ethics. The ethics which were opposed to it were also, he maintained, class ethics. Peel their pseudological husk away and the kernel will be found to be a concrete class need. It is inevitable that each class consider its ethical demands as absolute: it is not inevitable that it pretend that these demands are impartial or universal. Behind class rights are class needs” (p. 51).

Once more the question of objective truth is covered over in a flood of words, but Hook's verbal dexterity fails to make good the claim that Marx has an ethics. What, we may ask, can Hook possibly mean by a class “considering its ethical demands as absolute”? How does it know which are its ethical demands? Are they those which have binding force? In that case Hook is saying that a class considers that those of its demands which have binding force have binding force. There is no evidence that there is any such species of demands, or that “ideals” are different from any other object of demand; in fact, without the recognition of a quality of goodness, there can be no distinction between the ethical and the non-ethical.note But if there is such a character of things, then the question whether a certain thing is good will be a question of fact, of objective truth, no matter what anybody demands or what class he belongs to. The use of expressions like “ideals” enables Marxists, in Eastman's phrase, to “straddle the issue”, to adhere to their

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relativism while at the same time suggesting a positive quality which ethical objects have.

It is to be understood that the “abstract ethics”, to which exception is taken, is of a relativist character, and that Marxism rightly draws attention to the weakness of the attempt to erect “absolutes” of duty or interest, to specify what is “absolutely commanded” or “absolutely desirable”. But, because of the relativism in Marxism itself, the exposure can never be thorough, and we find not only fundamental ambiguities, but traces of the very doctrines that have been rejected, running right through Marxist discussions of ethics. The issues are particularly well illustrated in a passage in the Anti-Dü;hring (pp. 108, 109),note in which the doctrine of eternal moral truths is attacked. “The conceptions of good and bad”, says Engels, “have varied so much from nation to nation and from age to age that they have often been in direct contradiction to each other. But all the same, someone may object, good is not bad and bad is not good; if good is confused with bad, there is an end to all morality, and everyone can do or leave undone whatever he cares. This is also, stripped of his oracular phrases, Herr Dü;hring's opinion. But the matter cannot be so simply disposed of. If it was such an easy business there would certainly be no dispute at all over good and bad; everyone would know what was good and what was bad.” And, having shown that this is not so by pointing to the three types of moral theory held by “the three classes of modern Society, the feudal aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat”, Engels triumphantly concludes that “men, consciously or unconsciously, derive their moral ideas in the last resort from the practical relations on which their class position is based — from the economic relations in which they carry on production and exchange”; and, while none of the class moralities has “absolute validity”, the proletarian is awarded the palm as that which “contains the maximum of durable elements” and so “represents the future”.

It is, of course, a piece of effrontery on Engels's part to suggest that the drawing of an absolute distinction between good and bad implies that it is “easy” to determine what is good and what is bad. Men distinguished absolutely between flat and round, but did not find it easy to establish the roundness of the earth. It was, however, just because they made a definite, and not a relative, distinction, that they were able to dispute about the earth's shape. But Engels seems to imply that the fact that men disagree about goodness means that they are talking about different things, that their class position (or, more generally, their economic position) determines not merely what they consider to be good but what they mean by good. On this view, all the “theories” would be on different subjects, and there would be no reason for calling them all “moral” theories. But, in that case also, there would be no reason why they should not all be eternally true, even if they are not

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eternally believed — why X should not always be what the bourgeoisie means by “good” (whatever that may be) and Y always be what the proletariat means by “good”. If, however, the theories are on the same question — so that there really are disagreements — if it is merely that economic relations lead men to attach the definite predicate, good, to different subjects, then, as was noted above, this account of the genesis of ethical beliefs does not affect the question of ethical truths at all (and cannot, incidentally, determine whether they are or are not “eternal”). It can never be evidence for the proposition “Y is good” to say “I believe it is, because I am a proletarian” — or, again, to say that people are going to believe it in the future. But, even if it were, it would be evidence for an ethical fact.

Engels's “straddling of the issue”, then, seems to take the form of arguing that there are ethical theories but no ethical facts. We can come closer to the crux of the matter by considering the contention attributed to an objector that, if good is confused with bad, everyone can do as he pleases. This has force only if by “good” is meant what is to be done and by “bad” what is not to be done; otherwise, even if good and bad were qualitatively distinguished, a person might do what he pleased, and, if they were not, he might regulate his conduct by some other distinction. Now, no one will deny that policies, demands, “needs”, vary with conditions of life — and it might readily be admitted that there are no eternal needs. That this is Engels's own line of argument is shown by the example he proceeds to give, that the moral law, “Thou shalt not steal”, must exist in all societies in which there is private property, but that “in a society in which the motive for stealing has been done away with…the teacher of morals would be laughed at who tried solemnly to proclaim the eternal truth: Thou shalt not steal!” In other words, the assertion that stealing is bad is a form of exhortation, and, where there is no need to steal, there is no need to exhort people not to steal. But what is “moral” about all this, what distinguishes moral “needs” from other needs, moral “truths” from other truths? The fact is that the term “need” covertly conveys the suggestion of living better, that, along with the amalgamation of logic and ethics (and the sciences generally), goes an attempt to get the advantages of the independent recognition of positive goodness.

This is made still clearer as Engels proceeds. Rejecting the “dogma” of an eternal moral law, while himself maintaining the dogma of a “last analysis” according to which moral theories are the product of the economic stage of society, he says: “And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, cannot be doubted. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality.

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A really human morality which transcends class antagonisms and their legacies in thought becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class contradictions but has even forgotten them in practical life” (my italics). What, on a relative theory, can be meant by “progress in morality”? Does it mean a change in approvals which can itself be approved, the emergence of more demandable demands, more necessary needs? And is there not implied here an absolute necessity by which relative necessities are to be measured? This is, in fact, the position; those needs have greatest force which come nearest to “historic necessity”. Progress consists in advance towards a postulated Absolute, reality's, or, on the Marxist theory, Society's, realisation of itself, the establishment of true society (Socialism), of the true condition of humanity. “Scientific Socialism” reveals itself as Hegelian metaphysics, with the substitution of Society for the Idea. But since, short of the attainment of the Absolute, we are left with the merely comparative, with degrees of adequacy, it must always be purely arbitrary to say whether and what progress has been made. The recognition of progress, in fact, depends on an implicit admission of a positive goodness which runs counter to the whole theory of “needs” or any other moral relativism.

The Marxists, however, do not see the ambiguity of their position, but remain committed to an unscientific ethics of an evolutionist and rationalist character. The confusions of evolutionary ethics have been forcibly demonstrated by Moore, who shows, in Principia Ethica, that its supporters not merely hold both that “better” simply means “more evolved” (or later) and that evolution is producing something better, but actually take the former as a reason for holding the latter. But what makes it particularly hard for the Marxists to see these confusions is the complicating factor of their Hegelian rationalism, of their taking the later as nearer to the true or rational conditions of affairs.note This is the “scientific” basis of their optimism. From a scientific standpoint, says Engels (Anti-Dü;hring, p. 170), the “appeal to morality and justice does not help us an inch further; to economic science, moral indignation, however justifiable, cannot serve as an argument, but only as a symptom. The task of economic science is rather to show the social abusesnote which are now developing as necessary consequences of the existing mode of production, but at the same time also as the indications of its imminent dissolution; and to reveal, within the already dissolving economic form of motion, the elements of the future new organisation of production and exchange which will put an end to those abuses.” Or again, as Kautsky has it (Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History; Kerr edition, p. 201): “It was the materialist conception of history which has first completely deposed the moral ideal as the directing factor of social evolution, and has taught us to deduce our social aims solely from the

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knowledge of the material foundations.” And he goes on to speak (p. 206) of the “splendid vistas” of peace, freedom and industry, which “are won from sober economic considerations and not from intoxication through the moral ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity, justice, humanity!”

The process of “deducing” social aims from economic facts is a highly mysterious one. The recognition of a cause, of a necessary and sufficient condition of the occurrence of a phenomenon in a certain field, of what differentiates its occurrence from its non-occurrence is equally relevant to the aim of bringing about the phenomenon and to that of preventing it. The assumption is, in fact, that the “material foundations” have their own aims, that they have the “task” of overcoming their own evils. It is because of this assumption that the Marxists treat popular moral notions as merely epiphenomenal, while at the same time they do not rise above the level of such popular notions (ideals, indignation, altruism — as in Kautsky's equating of “the moral law” with “the social impulse”). They have no conception of the specific field of ethical science (or of any other specific field) because of their devotion to an ethico-logic, because, for them, facts of any description are facts of advance.note

This ethico-logic, this metaphysic or rationalism, is nowhere more evident than in Marx's “Theses on Feuerbach”. The first thesis practically sums up the whole position. “The chief defect of all previous materialism — including Feuerbach's — is that the object, reality, sensibility, is conceived only in the form of the object or as conception, but not as human sensory activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively. That is why it happened that the active side [of the object], in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism — but only abstractly, for idealism, naturally, does not know real, sensory activity as such. Feuerbach wants to recognise sensory objects which are really differentiated from objects of thought, but he does not conceive human activity itself as an objective activity. Consequently in the Essence of Christianity, he regards only the theoretical attitude as the truly human one, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-Jewishnote form. Hence he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of practical, critical, activity” (Hook pp. 273,4).

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The phrase rendered by Hook as “in the form of the object or as conception” is given by Eastman (Last Stand, p. 8) as “under the form of object or of contemplation”,note which certainly seems to make better sense. The point is, in any case, that the older materialists conceived reality (which, of course, for them is material reality) as an “-ed”, while the theory of the “-ing” was developed by idealism as an account of the activity of spiritual reality (Hook's interpolated phrase “of the object” showing that he misses this point). Thus, while the idealist theory can only be “abstract” because reality after all is material, what materialists have to do is to recognise the “-ing”, the activity, in material reality itself. And this is done by identifying sensory activity with the sensible object, by identifying the object with practice, and, in fact, with revolutionary activity. The sensory world has to be taken, Marx says, as a historical product. “Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensory certainty’ are given through social development, industry and commercial relations. The cherry tree like almost all fruit trees was transplanted to our zone, as is well known, through commerce; it was only by virtue of this action of a determinate society at a determinate time that it was given to ‘the sensory certainty’ of Feuerbach” (quoted by Hook, p. 295, from The German Ideology). The relativism of this, the confusion of what a thing is with what it is “through”, need not be stressed. What is important is that the truth of anything is taken as its place in the development of reality towards “rationality”, towards the realisation of its true nature.

This is confirmed by the tenth and eleventh theses (Hook, pp. 300, 303). “The standpoint of the old materialism is ‘civic society’; the standpoint of the new materialism is human society or socialised humanity.” “Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently: the point is, however, to change it.” Reality is revolution, and revolution is the achievement of a rational state of affairs — of Socialism. It is extraordinary that Hook should occupy space in wondering whether Marx was a “true Socialist”; he might easily differ from the school so described in his estimate of what was the truly human or rational condition of things, the choice being quite arbitrary in any case, but the logical position is the same. It may be said, also, that Marx differs from Hegel in that, while the Hegelian Absolute is a “result” which is never arrived at, Socialism is taken to be realisable in time. Marx would, in fact, be more consistent if he regarded history as a progressive socialising of things, without any suggestion of reaching Socialism or “perfectly reasonable relations”; his positive views of society collide here with his metaphysics. Hook takes a more Hegelian line in giving (pp. 306,7) what he considers to be the sense of the final (eleventh) thesis: “The very fact that philosophy is an activity in a world of space, time and incompatible interests, makes it clear that its goals cannot be absolute truth or absolute justice. But the fact that action is thoughtful makes it possible to achieve beliefs which are truer; the

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fact that thought leads to action makes it possible to achieve a world which is more just.” Here we have comparativism in excelsis, with no possibility of showing what beliefs are (truly) truer. But the real outcome of the theses is that not only would Marx not distinguish “truer” from “more just”, but that he could not distinguish either of them from later.

It is worthy of note that, in spite of Marx's rejection of the individualistic outlook of “contemplative materialism” (ninth thesis), a rejection which Hook (p. 303) expresses by saying that his “conception of man pointed to the necessity (!) of a direct collective control of all social institutions which influenced man”, his own outlook is distinctly individualistic in character. This is, indeed, only another example of his Hegelianism, for while Hegel's most useful work may be said to lie in his rejection of social atomism and his recognition of institutions, his philosophy remains a philosophy of consciousness, and in this too Marx followed him, identifying the rationalising of things with their “coming to consciousness”. The very fact that man is chosen as the subject of history is indicative of individualism. “History does nothing; it ‘possesses no colossal riches’; it ‘fights no fight’. It is rather man—real, living man—who acts, possesses and fights in everything. It is by no means ‘History’ which uses man as a means to carry out its ends as if it were a person apart; rather History is nothing but the activity of man in pursuit of his ends” (quoted by Hook, p. 38, from The Holy Family). This is the language of individualistic utilitarianism. One would expect a materialist theory, even in the form of a theory of men and not of institutions, to take its departure from what men do, not what they think or seek, but the Marxists can never get away from their talk of wills, ends, needs.

Thus Engels (Feuerbach, p. 105) says: “Men make their own history in that each follows his own desired ends independent of results, and the results of these many wills acting in different directions and their manifold effects upon the world constitute history. It depends, therefore, upon what the great majority of individuals intend” — which is still individualism, just as in the case of Hook's “collective control”. Going on, then, to inquire into the “impelling forces” behind historical change, Engels remarks (p. 108) that “we cannot consider so much the motives of single individuals, however pre-eminent, as those which set in motion great masses, entire nations, and again, whole classes of people in each nation”. And these forces, it need hardly be said, are found (p. 114) in “the economic conditions of the life of society”, the prime function of which is “the production of the necessities of existence” — i.e., of the existence of men, not of organisations.note It is a remarkable fact that when, as by Kautsky, the materialist conception of history is taken as applying Darwinian principles to society, the question is always of the

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survival or otherwise of persons, of the needs of “life”; and even the class struggle is taken as the struggle for existence of the persons composing the classes, and not of rival forms of activity, which might occur in the same person, and the survival or non-survival of which is, in any case, quite a different matter from the survival or non-survival of persons. Any of the elements in culture—Science, Art, Industry itself — no doubt operates through persons, but its “needs”, in the sense of conditions necessary for its continuance, its “ends”, as the effects its continuance will produce on its surroundings, its interactions generally with other things so that it does or does not “survive”, are not dependent on anyone's knowledge of them — any more than, as Marx points out (Preface to Critique of Political Economy), a man's own history is dependent on what he thinks of himself. It will not be denied that Marx gives some account of this social struggle, that his doctrine has helped towards a positive theory of organisations; but his humanistic starting-point has prevented the working out, by orthodox Marxists at least, of such a truly materialist conception of history.

It may be said, however, that it is not so much the individualism of this position as its rationalism, the conception of a true state or outcome of things, with the connected conception of reality, society, humanity, advancing as a whole, that prevents the working out of a necessarily pluralistic theory of the struggle of organisations. This total movement Marx attempts to account for in terms of the Hegelian “negation of negation”. Thus he says in The Holy Family (quoted by F. Mehring, Karl Marx: The Story of His Life; English translation, p. 103): “Because the abstraction of all humanity, even the appearance of humanity, is practically complete in the fully developed proletariat, because the living conditions of the proletariat represent the focal point of all inhuman conditions in contemporary society, because the human being is lost in the proletariat, but has won a theoretical consciousness of loss and is compelled by unavoidable and absolutely compulsory need — the practical expression of necessity — to revolt against this inhumanity, the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. However, it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions which give it life, and it cannot abolish these conditions without abolishing all those inhuman conditions of social life which are summed up in its own situation.” Such rhetorical playing with the notions “human” and “inhuman” (and, according to Eastman, apart from empty rhetoric of this kind, no proof is given anywhere in Capital of the “necessity” of Socialism) is a poor substitute for an account of the interactions of social movements, proletarian and otherwise, and an estimate of their outcome in positive terms.

It is somewhat surprising that Marx should immediately go on to say: “It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the proletariat as a whole, may imagine for the moment to be the aim. It is a question of what the proletariat actually is and what it will be compelled to do historically as a result of this being. The aim and the

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historical action of the proletariat are laid down in advance irrevocably and obviously, in its own situation in life, and in the whole organisation of contemporary bourgeois society” (my italics). No doubt there is much here of the sort that has been criticised. But if Marx could have stuck to the view that what a thing is is prior to its aims, it would have meant a complete recasting of Socialist theory. The doctrine of the primacy of “needs”, of history as “man's” pursuit of his “ends”, would have had to be abandoned; it would have been seen that needs are the needs of already existing activities (viz., what is required to keep them going), that things (human beings or social institutions) have their own ways of working even if they have no ends, though, of course, they will always have effects, and that the working-class movement exists positively as a form of activity now, and not relatively as a movement “for” Socialism, and would retain its good features (assuming that it has these) even if Socialism never came about at all. That is not to say that it is inherently impossible, from a knowledge of this and other movements, to predict that Socialism, a society of producers without capitalist property, will come about, but only that it will come about, if at all, from the nature of the movements and not of their “aims”, and that absence of proof (or even disproof) of its coming about would not nullify the movements.note

The upholding of a utilitarian ethics, an ethics of “ends”, has prevented Marxists generally from appreciating the work of Georges Sorel, who, admittedly on a Marxist basis but with a deliberate avoidance of Marxist orthodoxy, has developed an “ethics of the producers”. Sorel agrees with Marx that the development of the working-class movement has resulted from the bringing together of the workers in the capitalist factory. But the “heroic values” there engendered are directly opposed to the “consumers' ethics” of the capitalists, the ethics of profit or return, and thus to the tedious preaching of class “interests” and to the theory and practice of “social engineering”. Developing the “values” of initiative, emulation, care for exactitude and rejection of the notion of “reward”, the factory worker becomes assimilated to the scientist, the artist, the warrior — the types of disinterested activity. Sorel rejects the philanthropic “ethics” of Christianity precisely because it is concerned with returns and has no conception of a system of production, and a system of rights connected therewith. This is in line with the criticism of the philanthropic Utopians, in The Communist Manifesto, because they conceive history as the carrying out of their social plans and the working class only as the most suffering class. But

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we have seen how near Marx himself came, in The Holy Family, to the latter conception and how deeply utilitarianism is embedded in his whole work. And the latter-day Marxists, of the Leninist school, are little enough concerned with craftsmanship or “care for exactitude”; they regard exactitude (combined, of course, with “flexibility”) as residing solely in their own dialectical “science”, while the masses are moved to revolution not by productive traditions but by desperation (“increasing misery”).

It may be noticed that the “values” of the productive movement appear as attitudes of the individual producer. It is to be understood that participation in a movement will affect the character of the participants, but this does not mean that the movement can be summed up in, or expressed as a resultant of, their attitudes. On the contrary, any serious study of society must recognise the way in which individuals are “caught up” in movements, the extraordinary extent to which social developments can raise or lower individual “potential” — including the capacity for thinking and the making of decisions. This is, it may be said, not markedly different from the above-quoted views of Engels. But the point is that it can be developed only by abandoning the doctrine of “ends”, whether of individuals or of movements. And, with whatever Bergsonian confusions Sorel may express his departure from such rationalistic doctrines, his main concern is with movements as they are in themselves.

As a result of a preliminary investigation of the three highest achievements of the mind (science, religion, art), he says, “we are led to believe that it is possible to distinguish in every complex body of knowledge a clear and an obscure region, and to say that the latter is perhaps the more important. The mistake made by superficial people consists in the statement that this second part must disappear with the progress of enlightenment, and that eventually everything will be explained rationally in terms of the little science (Reflections on Violence; Hulme's translation, p. 159) — a view which, as we have seen, would convict Marx of “superficiality” in certain parts of his doctrine, at least. And Sorel goes on to distinguish, in ethics, the clearly expressible part “which has reference to the equitable relations between men” from the obscure part “which has reference to sexual relationships”, in legislation, the “scientific” region of contracts from the “mysterious” region of the family, and, in economics, the simplicity of questions of exchange from the complexity presented by the facts of production. (“Ethics”, in the first distinction here, is used in the sense of custom.) “Nobody denies”, he adds, “that production is the fundamental part of any economic system; this is a truth which plays a great part in Marxism, and which has been acknowledged even by authors who have been unable to understand its importance.”

In fact, the “irrational”, as opposed to the “rational” or calculable, is what things are, which must be prior to their adjustments. The “consumers'” view, that production is “for the sake of” consumption,

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cannot account for the development of production itself. The common ethical notions of disinterestedness and of things which are “for their own sake” are approaches to the conception of the independence of production, whether scientific, artistic or industrial. The truth of the “economic interpretation” is that society is production and that consumption is only incidental to its history. And, in general, a doctrine of what things are “for” is idealism, not materialism. The science of ethics, in particular, deals with what goods are, and the view that they are productive activities, while it owes much to Marx, could not have been developed without a shedding of Marx's rationalism and an independent reference to production itself. A full account of Sorel's ethics would require a separate study, in which consideration would have to be given to what he owed to Proudhon and to the French syndicalist movement, as well as to Marx. Enough has been said here, perhaps, to show that Sorel has not only helped to detach Marx's positive contributions to social science from his metaphysic of “true society” (whereas the orthodox Marxists remain in hopeless entanglement), but has opened up the science of ethics itself.