Marx’s moral theory (via Bill Kerr)

Thanks to Bill Kerr for permission to republish this.



If there is such as thing as human essence and we can discover what it is then that will go a long way towards developing a moral theory.

Human nature is part biological, part social and not religious. Religion is something to be explained rather than believed. This includes modern religions such as Nature worship (currently popular) and Marx worship (currently marginalised).

Humans have both needs and powers. Obviously, it follows that we are both needy and powerful and both of these aspects of being human need to be explored further.

The biological and social parts are connected or interact dialectically. It would be an error to see them in isolation from each other.

Fundamental biological needs include eating, drinking, habitation, clothing, sexuality …

Biological and Social. Humans produce their own existence / material life through social labour. Our biology allows this, eg. Opposable thumb, upright posture frees the hand, large brain. This separates us from other animals. Compared to other animals we are self conscious and wilful to a qualitatively different degree. Although we originate as part of nature, with our social labour we oppose nature. Our productivity is also imaginative. We imaginatively and self consciously transform nature and in that process also transform ourselves. This is a teleological process. Humans imagine new forms of the material and self and then through social labour bring that imagination into reality. This is human essence.


The guiding moral principle is to do whatever is required for the human flourishing of rich individuals, to dynamically expand human powers for all humans. Human flourishing is not original to Marx but Marx built on the best available ideas that came before him, those of Aristotle.

Marx and Engels were more aware than Aristotle about the role of social labour in this enrichment process. After all, Aristotle lived in a slave society. Refer Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. In communist society there would not be a division of labour based around the supply and demand of the labour market. In a world where production for the needs of all is established then each individual would be free to pursue their own perceived interests.


The philosophical stance here is to investigate what is distinctive about humans (biologically and socially) and from that basis to articulate what a good or rich life is.


Be clear about where our moral principles come from. Being determines consciousness. Matter is philosophically prior to ideas.

The theory is philosophically materialist. It starts from real people and real conditions. It ascends from earth to heaven, not descends from heaven to earth.

But, once we are in heaven how do we get back down to earth again? The only way is to make a detailed study of society in all its aspects. Mode of production, division of labour, social classes, Is there a surplus and who controls it?, the history of knowledge, current issues, individual self knowledge. There is a lot to know! The desirable actions that promote the best human nature at any point in history depends on the depth and perspicacity of such an analysis.


Capitalist limitations. For the capitalist, because they own the means of production, the workers life activity becomes a mere use value. In general, workers have no direct stake in the products they produce. Temporary niche solutions may be possible for individual workers but overall work loses it human character. In class society, the economy operates as a thing more or less outside of human control. If there is no profit to be made then production grinds to a halt. There maybe poorly understood economic laws. But the best that could be said of capitalism is that it is a highly unstable system in which the future well being of the workers who make it is uncertain and problematic.

Capitalism gives labour a bad feel (alienation) and production a bad name. Under capitalism humans are alienated from their essence, their living social labour, since the capitalists own the means of production and determines which products are made and who owns those products.

The capitalist economy is an unstable monster, poorly understood, difficult to manage and continually spinning out of control. Workers are alienated from the products they produce. Creative people who produce things of beauty (some artists, some writers, some teachers etc) are often not seen or appreciated as typical workers, rather they are marginalised workers looking for a niche to survive in a system that systematically undermines them. Or a handful may become megastar celebrities who play a significant role in entertaining the masses. Moreover, many believe today that capitalist production is despoiling the environment at an alarming rate. I think there is some truth to this latter charge, although I also see talk of environmental Armageddon as exaggerated and a distraction from the main wrongs of our society.

These issues in combination (production for profit not human need) give production itself a bad name. Human essence, social labour, life’s prime want, is reduced to being a wage plug, without a real say in the overall progression of society.

Rather than saving the planet (the current “left” mainstream zeitgeist) we need to focus more on how to liberate the social productive forces, human essence, in all their real power and beauty. A power and beauty which is obscured by the ugliness of capitalism.


The natural world is the world created by humans, who are part of nature, as well as the world that existed before humans. The natural world is not “green” insofar as that suggests a world not touched by humans. Such a world no longer really exists on Earth. In a post natural world (aka the anthropocene) our needs will be created more by what we make than the natural world that exists independently of what we make.

As society evolves our tastes, including our basic biological tastes, become more sophisticated: “the forming of the 5 senses is a labour of the entire history of the world” (source)


A moral theory has to somehow account for all human moral thinking, good and bad, angelic and evil, noble and perverse, optimistic and pessimistic. But Marx’s moral theory is (intentionally?) thin. It does not claim or suggest that humans are any of essentially selfish, altruistic, competitive, fallen, vicious etc. Is this a feature or a bug? In my view Marx is right about the essentials but there is a lot of stuff that is not covered. Marx analyses the deep structure of capitalist society but there are important issues that lie more on the surface (eg. the dark and deep emotions such as love, grief, anger) that strongly motivate individual actions but are left hanging. Hence, many people find that other moral philosophers and novelists address their needs more directly.


Utopians make the error of promoting general moral principles in the abstract, without regard to the current real state of society, without assessing the social forces at play. They are not realistic. Mere moral persuasion in favour of a better society is inadequate / doesn’t work.

There are many alternative moral theories. For example Plato (Iris Murdoch provides a modern interpretation), Stoic, Christian (various branches), Kantian, Utilitarian (Bentham and JS Mill provide different interpretations), feminism / women’s liberation, Buddhism (meditation and mindfulness are currently popular), existentialism, libertarianism, animal liberation, Sufism (adopted by Doris Lessing after her disillusion with communism), pragmatism (Dewey, Putnam), the liberal Capabilities approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum.

All of these need to be critically examined since what is correct only emerges clearly from a critique of such alternatives. At this stage I would say that none of these alternatives share with Marx the view that human essence is the conscious production of our existence / material life through social labour. Moreover, they tend to be indifferent to the analysis that the main current problems are generated by capitalism.


Humans are self conscious, intelligent, purposive, active, self directed. But this doesn’t mean we can negate the so called “external world” (only external to humans, who are a part of nature, so not really external to nature in that broader sense of the word) or history.

Human individuality (as distinct from herd or tribal mentality) emerges historically from the bourgeois revolution against feudal relations (when it was “natural” to obey a preordained superior such as a lord or king). Herds are not good at shopping, whereas individuals are. But just as individuality emerges strongly in the capitalist era, you would expect it to also change dramatically in a post capitalist society.

In class society, social class is a more important determiner of who we are than individuality as such. Individuals pick their personalities, interests, work etc. from what is available socially (including the cutting edge, futuristic and off beat, quirky trends) at the time. The idea that we are free, autonomous individuals is more part of capitalist mythology or ideology than reality.


Morality is historically contingent. What is moral in one historical period becomes immoral in another. The central issue is doing whatever is required to maximise the human flourishing of rich individuals in the given time and place.

For example, in the French revolution the rising bourgeois class overthrew feudal relations, got rid of divine rule by the King etc. In that historical period bourgeois right coincided with the needs of the proletariat as well. But at a later date the bourgeois class held things back, became reactionary, used social labour for their own ends, promoted an economic system which went through periodic crises and still does. At that point the revolution to continue human liberation and the liberation of the productive forces must be picked up by the proletariat, sooner or later.

Given the views expressed here about ontology (materialists need to deeply investigate reality) and history (morality is historically contingent) it follows that to work out the best moral – political actions requires some hard work. No one said it would be easy.


The productive forces developing within bourgeois society create the material conditions (preconditions?) for the solution to the problem of the antagonism of the individuals social conditions of existence. Big is beautiful, not small is beautiful (the latter from EF Schumacher). Not because capitalism is beautiful but because big, centralised production prepares the way for socialism.


Marx is grounded, not utopian. In The German Ideology, Marx rejects the idea of communism as “an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself”, rather he sees it as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”

This is pretty much the opposite of what most people today believe about communism, that it is idealistic and unrealistic.

From a moral perspective the aim is to bring together social being (human existence as it is) with social essence (human existence as it ought to be). As the contradiction between the individual and the social diminishes then the need for morality to maintain social cohesion would also diminish. All the conditions for rich individuality would be met by society. Eventually, morality might disappear altogether. If everyone’s needs were being met through the basic social structure then wouldn’t concepts such as selfishness or altruism lose their meaning?


There are many important issues missing from both the theory and practice of Marxism in this account. I have a preliminary list but will leave that to another time. No doubt if you have read this far you are both interested in this topic and will have your own unanswered questions. This will require far more discussion.


I have done a lot of reading on this topic but won’t attempt a detailed bibliography at this stage. But I will mention one reference which to me is a stand out, a PhD thesis by Vanessa Wills titled Marx and Morality(pdf 269pp) who has read and understood all of Marx IMHO.


Continuing with Tom’s notes…

Gramsci describes as a cultural revolution the period ushered in by the Renaissance and the Reformation. I’d not previously thought of these events, or movements, as cultural revolutions before, but he was right. They sounded the death knell of medievalism and it is worth remembering that the war was protracted, often bloody and characterised by what we have come to realise as historical transformations with their obligatory twists and turns. (This latter point should serve to reassure.)

It was from this cultural revolution that the modern individual arose.

There was a Cultural Revolution (CR) in Europe and it was accompanied by political struggle, war and revolution. It ushered in the modern era. Because of poor historical and theoretical understandings we are content to think that a CR is something that is launched – as it was by Mao in China. Communists in power will indeed launch GPCRs – its surely part of the job description, part of the deal in waging revolution. It is a conscious attempt to push things forward. Prior to this CRs were not prescribed or consciously directed and were more like a dogs breakfast (could do with a better description). They moved forward in fits and starts, often suffering defeats and being impossible to distinguish from the political and social turmoil that spewed it up. A slow moving but unstoppable tsunami, creeping forward here, being held back there, leaving untouched some remnants and swallowing up others. One way of reading Christopher Hill’s histories is through a cultural lens.

From the times of the English Revolution the big bourgeoisie in Britain only recognised a political personality, an individual, if they had property. This itself was clearly reflected in the franchise which, at the time of the revolution, was given to only about 3% of the population, a situation that changed only very slowly due to a franchise version of ‘bracket creep’ rather than reform. Gramsci makes this point regarding recognition in relation to the Catholic Church (no doubt he was right) but my thinking took me to the English Revolution and the rise of the capitalist class in Europe generally. The point is that a person is not worthy in their own sake, but only insofar as one is accompanied by wealth and the power implicit in wealth. The masses (and many pejorative terms exist to describe them) are the counterpoint to the valued, wealthy man of property and they arouse disdain and a strange mixture of indifference and fear. So long as they have no power and are accepting of this, it is the former; when they cease to accept their proscribed role and seek redress, it is the latter.

The primitivist appeal to the state of nature made during the revolution’s century saw man as a rational but isolated, atomized individual, set free from society. The appeal to the individual conscience, the religion of the heart, was ultimately an appeal to changing social norms. (Hill, Change and Continuity in 17th C England p 116). This too is the appeal of Locke’s tabula rasa.

Reactions to the French Revolution and their implications for individuality.

1. “… Semblance, I assert, must actually not divorce itself from Reality. If semblance do – why then, there must be men found to rebel against Semblance, for it has become a lie.” Carlyle, “The French Revolution.”

Marshall Berman’s page on this raises the matter stated by Marx that the dominant ideas of any epoch are those of the ruling class ->
xxxi Burke saw in 1790, before the revolution’s direction was clear, that the Enlightenment – the multitude of “ sophisters, economists and calculators”, had seized the initiative and “extinguished forever” “the glory of Europe”.

“All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonised the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics all the sentiments that beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by the new conquering empire of light and reason. All decent drapery of life is to be torn off …”

Beautifully written tripe and an admission that the ”whole social system of Europe was essentially a system of lies.” The artifices of ruling class life and the ideological justifications of it were laid bare. Once again the emperor had no clothes – but this time they had been torn off. Semblance had not only become a lie, it had been seen to become so.

This masquerade, as Berman calls it, may well have been subtle for its beneficiaries (here straight jacketing the self expression of those within it) but it was hardly subtle for the peasants or the emerging proletarians. In Britain it was brutal (the Industrial Revolution) although Burke’s prose applies equally to the draperies employed by the capitalist ruling class in Britain as it did for the decadent feudal ones of Europe.


a) in England – the role of Puritanism

Hill makes the point that the transition from tribal to village society involved a shift from kinship (blood bond) to neighbourhood – ie, tribalism to feudalism; and that the transition from parish to sect was a shift from local community to voluntary organisation.

Voluntary organisation cannot occur to any significant degree without the existence of self motivated individuals. Today this is everywhere around us. If we exclude work from our reckoning (it is a necessity and as such limits the ground in which voluntary organisation can operate) we see a plethora of activities, clubs, associations and the like which people engage in freely. It covers all classes, ages and tastes and could not occur without freely choosing individuals, all taking responsibility for fulfilling certain of their needs.

The communist movement has struggled with this aspect, that is, the ‘free’ aspect of the individual. A difficulty I see is that the free individual, as he/she emerged from the medieval quagmire, has been associated with the development of capitalism. In other words the free individual has more than likely been one of the ‘industrious sort’ so central and instrumental in the development of capitalism, in England especially (Tawney’s depiction makes this connection a defining characteristic). Bourgeois individualism has ‘form’ and communist movements have rightly identified these social elements (and the economic relations which generate them) as self serving and willing (and needing, more to the point) to exploit others.

This aspect of the individual’s development, while true, is also one sided. And it’s with the other side that we have had trouble understanding, coming to terms with and more importantly, relating to. Berman, in ‘The Politics of Authenticity’ and ‘All That is Solid…’ has, I think, attempted to correct this by focusing on the other side, that which deals with the emergence of the individual due to the development of modernity.
From a different discipline so too has the English Marxist historian Christopher Hill. One of Hill’s great contributions has been his determination to track and expose the development of both sides or aspects of the individual’s development in England from the 16th to the 18th centuries. That is, the individuals connection to bourgeois economic and social development, the aspect that has ‘form’, and the individuals development caused by modernity (although I cannot recall him using that term).

The Levellers wanted to extend voting rights to all adult men with a proprietary stake in the realm. While limited re today’s understanding, this demand was radical and aimed against their class enemy. The bourgeoisie, for its part, successfully sought to deny the common people this right. What is significant about this struggle is that it indicates that two streams of individuality/individualism had emerged – one was that of the bourgeoisie proper and the other that of the common people, the latter being led at this historical stage by the Levellers. (Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ represent the logical development of the Levellers position.) This latter represents the historical tradition that we need to identify with. Its development took, what we could call, petty bourgeois and proletarian directions; Paine on the one side, Marx on the other. Figures like Goethe and Shelley sit somewhere in between, but much closer to Marx, I think.

Capitalism and modernity are not the same. Each has developed together and each has, within itself, contained the possibility of the other. This is best seen and summed up in the “all that is solid melts into air’” aspect, the dynamism, that is common to both.

By the early 19th C it was becoming possible to clearly distinguish between the two and to see that the development of one frustrated, distorted and held up the development of the other. Marx’s writings were very much concerned with this distinction; indeed he and Engels were key figures in making it. In effect they were saying: I like this part, the dynamism, the restlessness, the urge to develop, which in turn enables the individual to develop; but not this part, the tying of labour in perpetuity to market relations and the exploitation and alienation that goes with this. Marx and Engels spent most of their lives demonstrating that capitalist economic and social development will materially create the conditions where it can be superseded. Where, iow, (in other words) modernity can be fully transformed and shed itself of its capitalist aspect.

b) The 18th C Enlightenment

‘To be authentic, authentically “oneself”, is to see critically through the forces that twist and constrict our being and to strive to overcome them” In this sense we see Burke as not authentic, just true to his class (see comments on Burke’s take on the French Rev).

We are affected ourselves by the twistings and constrictions as we do this. We may move toward authenticity through willingly taking on (or perhaps even maintaining) other twistings as we identify and seek to overcome or overthrow the main source of that which twists and constricts us. (This needs some thinking through).

The notion of virtue draws a sharp line between the self and society: the self is virtuous only when it surrenders its freedom and submits to the laws of the society that imposes them. Yep; and clearly an important reason for women in particular to not be virtuous. When Berman wrote that sentence – the second is mine – he could not have imagined how prescient it would turn out to be for Muslim women in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In the Persian Letters Montesquieu tries to show that no social system can provide human happiness unless it posits – and its Government guarantees, a basic human right: the right of every person to be oneself.
My Comment:
a) this seems self evident as one needs a ‘self’ to get this.
b) the link between this idea and the American Rev, and its emphasis, well developed by the Revolution and crystal clear by the 19th C, on individualism.
c) The floods of migration from Europe to the Americas and a little later to Australia and other areas of the new world indicate a strong drive for economic betterment for family and for self. This often took the form of a sacrifice for one’s children, for the next generation, and it bore fruit. This drive has been overwhelmingly positive and progressive.
d) The self, oneself, is not a static entity. The self evolves, develops according to the constraints and possibilities of the level of social development in a given society. This applies between social systems and within them. This is especially so with capitalism
e) If communists don’t ‘get’ this, respond to it, work with it (not against it) we will be relegated to the margins of history, a curio blip, like a number of historically redundant beliefs and trends.

“The basic question, now, is how much freedom do the members of any state or society have to be the individuals they are – how far, in other words, is human authenticity allowed to unfold?”
Comment: This is historically and socially mediated, constructed even. As ‘they are’, the degree of unfoldingness, is developmental. This also applies within a historical epoch, to movements.
It applies to us on two levels:
1. The general, the historical.
2. The demands, impacts on oneself of the movement, group, whatever.

A repressive society – and this covers all pre capitalist societies and non democratic capitalist societies – creates a radical gap between people’s social identities (the roles they are forced into) and their real selves/identities. Personal identities must therefore be achieved. People cannot be themselves within the system but must strive to become themselves in spite of the system. This can take private, even mystical forms (see above) where the contradiction is maintained and where, therefore, authenticity cannot be achieved; or against the system. Here people cannot be themselves within the system and strive to become themselves against the system. Thus, Berman argues, revolt is the only mode of authenticity a repressive society allows (a variant of where there is oppression there will be resistance to that oppression, where our true nature is oppressed, revolt is inevitable).

The theory of revolution grows out of, and develops alongside, the idea of authenticity. This is consistent with our revolutionary history going back to the English Revolution. The question is: how well have proletarian parties, especially the successful ones – Bolsheviks, CCP being foremost – fulfilled this – or sought to fulfil – within the boundaries of what was historically and socially achievable? Within the west I think we’ve been mainly bench warmers and not players. Revolutions in the undeveloped economies led by communist parties present a more complex picture. With 80/90% of the population in China, for example, being peasant and where feudal practises, ideas and habits predominated, the communists had to work with the raw materials at hand and an emphasis on a collectivism that downplayed individuality was probably inevitable and necessary. (This did not mean that individuality did not develop – it did, in leaps and bounds – but that this aspect was not overtly promoted.) What I find disappointing is the lack (or maybe it’s an apparent lack?) of theoretical material from either the CCP or the Bolsheviks that laid the realities on the table in such a way that indicated that they knew the growth of the individual was an important goal, and a Marxist one to boot, but that circumstances did not allow them to focus on this. This distinction, the rationale, does not strike me as complex or beyond the ability of most people to ‘get’. That there does not appear to have been much written about this indicates that it was not seen as a problem. This reinforces my hunch that there is a deep ambivalence about the individual/individuality in revolutionary movements generally that has been dealt with through avoidance and a one-sided focus on notions of collectivism.

A comment on the romantic yearnings for an idealised, Arcadian past. What is yearned for is an equality of a simple, static, face to face agrarian economy based on scarcity and frugality.
And this is what makes it a reactionary yearning – it looks to the past, an idealised and non-existent one at that – and posits it as the future. Its most modern form can be seen amongst extremist greens and Islamic fundamentalists like the Taliban. It certainly had a presence in the English Revolution and re-emerged as a current of the Romantic movement which coincided with and responded to the Industrial Revolution.
We, however, envision, as Berman states, equality (and authenticity) within an urban, dynamic economy based on growth and abundance. And Amen to that!

Montaigne: (16th C) Nothing within the range of human experience was alien to him – anticipating Marx in the 19th who was no doubt paying tribute when he said it.

Rousseau’s alienation:
was self alienation. This was new. Rousseau: “they transform themselves into totally different men” (Confessions); in other words, the source of this alienation was men themselves. Philosophers had hitherto enjoined people to “know thyself”. Rousseau deepened this – not just to know, but to be oneself. His Confessions were aimed to bring his authentic self into being. The injunction to know oneself assumes a core self, an inner reality that, while masked, shrouded, hidden beneath layers of socially prescribed falsities (hypocrisies, two facedness) existed and was ready for development. The idea of a true self/false self dualism fits into this. Rousseau’s idea was much more radical. He posited that the inner self itself was a problem – that the self was only potentiality, something yet to be attained.

While stripping away the layers of the false self was a valid ‘work in progress’, the more important task was the actual creation of the self – a ‘work in progress’ from go to woe.

“It is no longer necessary for the self to go back into the past to search for its source. Its source is here and now, in the present moment”. This is a radical idea and one picked up within the psychotherapy field in the last century. Its truth, its value needs to be counter-posed to the observation made by Marx: “we suffer not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside modern evils, a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living but from the dead.” Capital 1 13. Together these views form a dialectical whole.

“…Rousseau showed how all the modes of personal identity – both traditional and modern – were actually modes of depersonalization, stumbling blocks which kept the individual self from coming into its own.” Marx would not have a problem with this.
“Servitude is so unnatural to man” writes Rousseau in Julie, “that it could not exist without some discontent”. He is grappling with a truth (let’s leave aside the unnatural bit as this is both true and untrue) that Mao was able to articulate in full force 200 years later – it is right to rebel against reactionaries.
Rousseau comments on his experience of servitude when, as a young man he was employed by the Countess de Vercellis. “She judged me less by what I was than by what she had made me; and since she saw in me nothing but a lackey, she prevented me appearing to her in any other light.” “But” continues Berman, “he himself had collaborated in the falsification, by acting as if her image were true.”
This objectification, and creation of a demeaned other in the process, continues today in all areas of life. What is different is that the individual has assumed centre stage and demands expression in ways unimaginable 250 years ago. How the individual exists or is portrayed in media etc – their central role in soaps, for example, are indicators of this development. While the ‘making’ aspect still applies it is now done much more consciously (because there is no other solution). This needs more teasing out………
That the Countess could have this effect underscored to Rousseau that he needed recognition – that he could be himself only to the degree that his self identity was confirmed by others. That which they did not recognise he could not assert. To Rousseau this suggested that others could mould people into whatever shape one wanted, and in a traditional hierarchy this power was held by the hereditary ruling classes – those at the bottom were forced to define themselves according to the terms dictated from above.
While this seems obvious, Rousseau’s conclusions came from a very personal experience via an examination of self. His conclusions indicate that he already had a well established self capable of self reflection and autonomous action. His ability to be self analytical and to resist sprang from that well.
It also indicates that resistance to ruling class pressure that distorts identity a la Rousseau’s experience begins in the individual (there must be formed individuals of which modern societies generate by the truck load) and then taken to a mass arena.
Another take on this: OK, so one can be moulded by the ruling class; this is old news. The interesting bit is the resistance. This was based upon the existence of an autonomous self, who drew the lessons and grew in strength. Today we are a much harder bunch to mould. The autonomous individual is churned out by the truck load. But this means that ‘we’ or, rather, ‘they’ will resist being moulded by us too. If we pigeon-hole whole bunches of people along simplistic class lines without recognising and respecting their individuality, we will be making a rod for our own individual and collective back.
Another aspect here springs from our social nature. We define ourselves in relation to the other. Developmentally the self is created through the interplay of the infant/child and external ‘objects’/subjects. Without recognition there is no self and therefore no individual. The question is not whether recognition is needed, but from whom/what and with what aim.
Traditional societies pigeon hole people; their identities are ascribed and fixed within very narrow limits
Modern societies enable identities to be achieved and transcended. Limits, roles are transcended regularly and to such a degree we barely notice. Your average Joe at work transcends himself out of work – is he a junior sports coach, team manager, assistant this or that, the secretary of a club, an amateur whatever, a blogger etc. How about a revolutionary? Now, that’s a novel idea!
Modern society has made it possible for the first time in our history for people to be themselves, to define and create their lives as they see fit, to create lives authentically their own. And modern capitalist society both enables and prevents this.

Cultural authoritarianism of the 18th C – Berman mentions the political Newtonian physics, used to promote ideas of clockwork perfection in science, everything in its place etc and neo-Classicism in the arts – was aimed at accustoming people to submit to fixed, eternal rules, externally imposed, closed to scrutiny… It’s an interesting idea – a defacto, partial, ideological united front between a decaying French feudalism and an ascendant British capitalism. The point of unity was the need for social stability. The British ruling class was largely successful in this quest because they had had a revolution; their French counterparts were not because they hadn’t. It’s also a consequence of the ER being forcibly stopped where it was. As social/economic developments continued to gather pace, the ruling class was attracted to and also had a need, to dust off ideas of stability and of permanently fixed social roles that they had challenged so successfully when the feudalists held sway.
This following quote has relevance for today:
By teaching to order and evaluate their experience according to received conventions, culture was depriving them of their strongest weapon against political oppression and social exploitation: their sense of self.
This was made regarding Rousseau’s evaluation of pre revolutionary France, albeit a Paris in the early throws of modernity. But the comment regarding culture stands alone. Culture that draws its authority from a closed and oppressive past cannot prepare or aid its members to negotiate the permanently turbulent waters that modernity throws up. For such cultures, the future has already happened and all it does is prepare people for another round of the same.

Rousseau saw modernity as possessing a paradoxical character: “as both the nadir of man’s self alienation and, simultaneously, the medium for his full self-liberation.” Yep, got it in one – well, almost. Seeing it as a paradox denies its dialectical nature although it is unfair to be critical of Rousseau here as he precedes Hegel. He deserves our gratitude for seeing both aspects of this ‘paradox’ which, as an 18th C thinker puts him one up on most the left thinkers of the following two, for, with notable exceptions, only one aspect or the other has been focused upon and only very rarely has their dialectical nature been understood. The left has been particularly guilty of this as it is they who have claimed the mantle of Marx’s critique. This includes the revolutionary left as well as the reformist.

Some interesting ideas here:
To overcome self alienation Rousseau understood that this (modern) social system (although I don’t think he understood it as capitalist), in the course of its own development, had created a mode of consciousness that was capable of transcending it. (He gets a cigar for this very profound insight). Re this, Rousseau drew upon his view that modern men inherently strove to transform their thoughts into practise (another cigar) and that, therefore, their alienation could be overcome via their consciousness being transformed into self consciousness (half a cigar because of the link to individuality and autonomy). In this way they may be able to solve their personal and social problems through reforms from within (no cigar). He hoped “to draw from the evil itself the remedy that can cure it.” (A dialectical view, but not a sophisticated one – a few puffs on somebody else’s cigar for this one).
It seems to me that Rousseau is swinging between idealist and materialist frameworks, anticipating, in some ways, Hegel. His dialectical thinking comes close, but there is no cigar because he is unable (by nearly a century) to link his observations and analysis of modernity to the economic relations driving it. Without this the slide into idealist solutions becomes seductive.

(to be continued)…

Development of the Individual, and the individual in pre-modern society

Continuing Tom’s notes on the individual in communist thought…

“As a man is, so is his philosophy” – Fichte.

The characteristics of individuals are products of social relations. An individual’s character is a factor in social development only where, when, and to the extent that social relations permit it to be.

Self Alienation in Traditional Society

People derived their feelings of personal identity from ascribed roles – assigned without reference to individual differences or abilities – predicted and trained for from the moment of birth. Charles 2nd was pointedly informed that Oliver sought people on the basis of merit and not status, a reflection of two very different world outlooks.

“The domination of the land as an alien power over men is already inherent in feudal landed property. The serf is an adjunct of the land. In the same way the lord of an entailed estate, the first born son, belongs to the land. It inherits him.” – Marx, ‘Rent of Land’ in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844.

Advantages: conducive to social stability and shields the undeveloped self from expectations (and disappointments) beyond its station.

Disadvantages: stifles energy and initiative of individuals slotted into ascribed roles.

Individually the scope for disappointment is narrow as expectations are limited to the role one is born into – an emotional security blanket and an emotional and intellectual straight jacket. Now the scope is much wider because there are no limits placed on expectations.

Rousseau lived at a time when feudal ascribed identities had reached unbearable limits for a large number of people. He understood the psychic costs and urged that feudal traditions in habits and manners, for example, be abandoned.

“Individual thought or feeling, insight or initiative, could only be destructive to these traditions and routines. Marshall Berman, ‘The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society’, p100 [Berman had spent the last couple of pages describing how the dead hand of the past weighted down on the aristocracy and the peasants – differently to be sure and advantageous to the aristocracy,- “it was easy to see why the upper classes were willing to make the sacrifice of self which their social roles demanded” he adds next page – but equally limiting in their own way] Hence it was essential for traditional society to keep individuality from developing, at the bottom as well as at the top.” (p101)

”Every man was reduced to a function of the rank which he acquired at birth – or, perhaps more accurately, to paraphrase Marx, the rank which acquired him.” It is perhaps more accurate to say “limited” as reduced implies a ‘from what’ which did not exist.

Marx’s Grundrisse

Pre-capitalist periods see the individual as an accessory to definite and limited human conglomerates. That is, limited, stunted, unable to develop.

The individual of our epoch is a historical result. The individual arises historically and is not posited by nature.

The individual of Smith and Ricardo – the result of the dissolution of feudalism on the one hand and the new forces of production developed since the 16th C on the other. This individual appears as an ideal whose existence they project into the past – not as the result of historical development, but posited by nature, the so-called “natural man”. This “natural man” was appropriate to their notion of human nature. It persists and remains a dominant view.

The more we go back “in history the more the individual is dependent, as belonging to a greater whole”. The epoch that produces this idea of the isolated individual is that which is most developed viz social relations. This is not a paradox as the human individual can only individuate in the midst of society – ie, the more complex the society the greater is the scope for individuation and complex individuals. This process is ongoing.

The Individual in Pre-Modern Society

Authenticity (and hence individualism) is not a problem or even on the radar in closed, static societies governed by fixed norms and traditions. Here, people are satisfied with the roles given, experiencing themselves as pegs, aspiring “only to fit the holes that fit them best.” A static equilibrium. (Berman p xxvii)

This aspect is foundational in Plato’s Republic and why Platonic idealism is reactionary (because so out of step).

Once a man is fitted into the niche he was born for, the loose ends in his nature fall away, “each part of his nature is exercising its proper function” and he takes on that perfect balance Plato calls justice. This niche fitting gives a person their identity (butcher, baker, tailor etc. That these and a host of other occupational descriptions survive today as surnames speak, historically, of prescribed generational roles…)

“Violent class struggles may go on: but they concern only the allocation of particular holes to particular pegs. The board itself, the closely knit but rigidly stratified system of the Greek polis, which defines men precisely by their functions, remains unquestioned and intact.”

And Kautsky thought of Plato as a prototype socialist?? The fact that he did and the fact that he was seen as the leading theoretician of the Second International indicates the depth of the problem for the left around the individual. This idea needs developing.

Pre capitalist societies (and less developed capitalist ones) fit individuals into Procrustean roles and acts as if human individuality didn’t exist – at least not for the masses.

The Stoics rebelled against the procrustean nature of the polis but did so mystically. They didn’t oppose particular orderings of the world, but the world itself. People were alienated from the world and self was to be found beyond the world, transcendentally. They therefore complied with Plato’s polis in their external relations, but not internally and cut their internal world off from an engagement with the external. And a fat lot of good that did!

“Thus the search for authenticity began with a negative interpretation of the world “ [with no positive attempt to change it] – thus was born disengaged conformity/internal ‘liberation’ which, Berman says, has since passed into mainstream western culture.

ALIENATION: From Karl Marx to Merle Travis and beyond…

Originally published at Strangetimes.lastsuperpower on November 27, 2009

Sixteen tons
Whadaya get?
Another day older
And deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me
‘coz I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.

‘Sixteen tons’ is one of many songs about alienation under capitalism. The song was recorded in the USA in 1946 by Merle Travis, whose father had worked in the mines of Kentucky. Merle’s father often used the phrase “another day older and deeper in debt” around the house. The song has been covered by many country artists, as well as blues and rock performers – my favourite version is by Eric Burdon.

Merle Travis’ version is here:

Check out Eric’s too:

The ‘sixteen tons’ refers to work, specifically in the coal mines during the era of the ‘truck system’ (under which workers in company towns were paid with vouchers recognized only by the local store rather than paid in cash). This may seem to date the song, even make it irrelevant to the current time. However, I think ‘sixteen tons’ can mean any kind of work people do for wages under a system in which wealth is socially produced yet privately appropriated. It’s certainly true that mechanization and automation continue to reduce the numbers of people doing such work; the kind of toil that my father always referred to in my youth as ‘dirty work’. (He worked in factories and used to nag me: “Son, study hard and go to uni and then you’ll be able to become a school teacher. Don’t end up in a dirty job.”).

There’s nothing romantic about working in the dirty jobs and, as technological changes continue to reduce many of the more mind-numbing tasks, then it becomes more likely that more people will seek even greater freedom to decide what they do and how and why they do it. Multi-skilling is another example. The more it occurs, so too the greater the likelihood that workers will start wondering why they can’t strive to fully develop their many interests and desires. We are rarely these days just a machinist, just a waitress or just a teacher, and within a lifetime we can be all the above and more. But this multi-skilling occurs within the framework of capitalist social relations: we are multi-skilled in the interests of a capitalist class. But were the producers to one day control production, why would there need to be social limits to what we want to be and, indeed, to our satisfaction in striving toward achieving our goals and desires? This would be free enterprise in the best possible sense.

Capitalist enterprises that experiment with ‘worker participation’ seek to create a sense of ‘belonging’ yet cannot reduce alienation because it is rooted in the very economic system that allows the capitalist class to appropriate socially produced wealth. But, again, such experiments raise the question: why can’t the workers take over for ourselves? Why can’t we be the ‘board of directors’ and the owners? Do we really need ‘them’ to do it for us?

When I was in the communist party during the 1970s, the old veterans often talked about the ‘big one’ coming; that is, that one day, there would be a major global crisis for capitalism that would be so severe the system would not survive. They seemed to believe that without such a crisis, there would be no revolution. Later, after I quit the party and started thinking more for myself, I started to wonder why a revolution should occur from a crisis like the one experienced in the 1930s. Economic depressions hardly create optimism. Why shouldn’t people, as they did, mostly just want the system to work again as it had when they were in jobs? Of course, communist activists back then succeeded, to a point, in linking the economic crisis to its root cause, capitalism, but capitalism has clearly not continued a downward spiral in terms of living conditions and working conditions for most people. In absolute terms, working conditions and living conditions have improved since the 1930s in the advanced industrial societies. So, is it really about inevitable economic crisis? Is there any other fundamental reason for wanting to overthrow capitalism and replace it with social ownership?

I think there is. And, while I’m no expert when it comes to theory, I think it’s clear that, regardless of the condition of the economy, an excellent reason for wanting fundamental change in the social relations is because our human potential is so undermined by the wages system. We are alienated from the basic process of production (because we have no control over it as workers) and from other important aspects of our humanity. In his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx argued that in addition to being alienated from the process of production, the workers are also alienated from its product (as this is owned by the owner of the means of production, the capitalist) and we are alienated from one another, our fellow workers (as labour becomes a commodity rather than a social relationship because we are only an extension of the means of production that the owners of capital buy).

Of particular importance, in my opinion, is Marx’s notion that the worker is also alienated from his or her individual humanity or ‘species essence’. It’s worth quoting Marx on this:

“In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being. Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. An animal forms only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.

“It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him”.

While technologies, management techniques and living standards have changed since Marx’s time and since the end of World War Two, capitalism itself hasn’t changed in any fundamental sense. It remains a socio-economic system where social relations are based on commodities for exchange, in particular private ownership of the means of production and on the exploitation of wage labour.

So the ‘sixteen tons’, the symbol of production based on the exploitation of wage labour, remains as relevant as ever. The song is also valid today when it suggests drudgery – we work, we get older, we generally go deeper into debt. Our greatest achievement in countries like Australia is paying off the house. Yet we spend the better part of our lives doing so. And even in Australia, with comparatively high home-ownership rates, most of us do not own our own homes outright.

In ‘Sixteen Tons’, Merle Travis was referring to the ‘store system’ in the geographically isolated mining towns of Kentucky whereby the company – the owners of the mines – also owned the stores which had a monopoly over the provision of goods and services. Workers frequently went into debt to the company store and were thereafter ‘trapped’ into working at the particular place to pay off their debts. The truck system ensured they could not save cash. Today, for ‘company store’, I suppose one can substitute the word ‘bank’.

The ‘company store’ is also very important to an understanding of alienation because it symbolizes, in the song, the physical expression of the wages system as experienced by the workers. Workers in any industry rarely see the real boss – the owners of the company. We talk often about ‘the bosses’ – the boss did this, or the boss said that – but usually this refers to those we see and meet and experience at work each day. These are managers rather than bosses and, despite their high salaries, are usually as dependent as the rest of us on the wages system. When trade union leaders urge the ‘bosses’ to be fairer or speak angrily against unfair bosses, they are missing the point unless these bosses are linked directly back to the owners of whatever the means of production happens to be. Invariably, such militant rhetoric merely seeks longer chains and bigger cages for the workers, and is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The company store might be pressured into lowering some prices, giving more credit or deferring some repayments, it might replace stern and impersonal counter staff with the happy smiling faces of staff with diplomas in ‘human relations’ – but still the source of exploitation will exist. Once the truck system was abolished, workers were paid in cash – but no less exploited, no less alienated from their work.

The worker in the advanced economies is rarely trapped into the company store system today. Indeed, the individual worker is able to leave one job in pursuit of another at any time: but the new job will still be based on the wages system. And the debts, to the bank, will still need to be repaid. Someone will own the show – ‘the mine’ and ‘the store’ – other than the workers who produce goods and/or provide services. It is true that leaving one job for another is easier in good times, when labour is in demand, but this misses the point that wherever the worker goes, they will end up working for wages, the work is not voluntarily performed but only performed because individual workers cannot survive without those wages. The entire class, the working class, is thus defined by its relationship to the owners and the wages system keeps us locked into what is in essence wage slavery.

The Marxist notion that alienation denies us our true humanity and potential, the enjoyment and fulfilment of our ‘species essence’, brings me back to the song. For, in my view, the most important lyric relates to the ‘soul’. The worker, in the song, owes not just money but pretty much EVERYTHING – the best hours of his awakened day – to the company store. Which is really saying he owes it to the company. Which means the class of owners.

I know that Marx was an atheist, and it’s not possible to embrace a materialist philosophy and also believe in God. But as an atheist myself, I do think the notion of the human ‘soul’ should not be dismissed in any discussion of alienation. No, I’m not suggesting for one moment that there’s a thing called a soul that exists independently of our sensual reaction to the material world. But there is something that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom and, again, it is what Marx called our ‘species being’. Were it not for this quality of humanity, we could not feel or sense our alienation. We would just work like the spider that weaves its complex web without any sense of what else we could be doing that would be more fulfilling, more efficient, more liberating, more beautiful and useful. We would not imagine the new things and new ways of doing things that precede achievement and progress and are nurtured by it.

Given that 99% of the population don’t spend any time studying theories of alienation, it becomes something that is felt rather than understood, and expressed through a desire for greater meaning in life. In the 1960s, the counter-culture movement gained enough followers to set up experimental communes in rural areas based on the principle of self-sufficiency. This too was an expression of alienated people seeking something better, but in reality doing little more than expressing their alienation rather than seeking to change the system that causes it.

Unlike production in medieval times, self-sufficiency proved impossible in a modern industrial society and the hippies left themselves wide open to stand-up comedians who saw dependence on the dole cheque or wealthy parents or drugs – or all the above – as being necessary to the experiment. Besides, the great majority of people didn’t want to drop out; they rightly wanted the benefits and material advantages of life in an advanced industrial society. But this too has its down-side, in that people tend to seek happiness through objects. And while I will never say anything sacri-religious about my Plasma TV, I certainly want greater freedom as well as more stuff. The struggle against alienation is a quest for greater freedom and self-actualisation, regardless of whether capitalism is going through periodic economic crisis or not.

The expression of alienation that seeks greater meaning in life usually has a religious form, including the quasi-religious green outlook in which Nature is God. I’m always stumped as to why so many people support or sympathize with green ideology (by which I mean the idea that we must develop some kind of subservient harmonious and ‘sustainable’ relationship with the natural environment rather than continue to actively change it in our collective interests). But perhaps alienation offers an explanation. We all sense our ‘powerlessness’, our disconnect from the way social relations are structured, and, arising from that, many of us seek some sense of control over life. A few people go in for things like growing their own vegetables or becoming self-sufficient in domestic energy. Those who do get into this, really take it very seriously. They are not just growing their own veggies but ‘Saving the planet’ no less.

Marx certainly saw religion as an expression of alienation, with humans creating gods as a reflection of themselves but believing them to be separated from and external to themselves. Everyone knows Marx’s statement about the ‘opium of the masses’ but in the same discussion in his Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) he describes religion as “the soul of soulless conditions”, the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world”. He is not endorsing religion, but seeking to understand it. There is no suggestion that religion solves the problem of alienation – far from it – for “To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions.”

The solution to alienation lay not with seeking meaning somewhere other than the material conditions of existence or of making people feel better so they can cope, or new management techniques in the workplace that make us work better and happier and more effectively, but rather the solution is to change the economic basis of the problem. Anything else keeps us on a merry-go-round. But that is a bad example, for merry-go-rounds are usually fun, whereas the wages system generally isn’t. Proof of this is found in the oft-repeated expression in the workplace: “I just work here”. Or in the enthusiastic lunch-break discussions about winning the lottery. Few people who win the lotto return to work on a voluntary basis. Rather, they start doing what they want to do. They seek to make the most of their freedom from wage slavery. It’s not about ‘the money’ or waiting for ‘the big one’; it’s about freedom and fulfilment or what Marx (in The German Ideology) called “self-activity” (self-actualisation), the opposite of alienation. This self-actualization, or “development of individuals into complete individuals and the casting-off of all natural limitations” cannot possibly occur under capitalism but, to Marx, only through communism when “self-activity coincides with material life”.

Without the overthrow of capitalist social relations and their replacement by social ownership of social wealth, people will remain alienated, the best years of their lives being organised to produce someone else’s profit or servicing that system. Under a system in which the workers are the ruling class, production could be geared to social need and the desires of imagination rather than to the profit of the few.

‘Sixteen tons’ is a heavy weight but nothing compared to the creative power of human beings when freed and unleashed from the constraints of capitalist social relations.