Thursday, May 26, 2016

Marxism and Morality---Part One

This will be an evolving series with short posts. If you're interested in this topic, please keep checking back to see how our views are evolving.

I recently posted a nine-part series on thinking, critical thinking and dialectical materialism on this blog. The intent was to cover in short posts some aspects of how socialists can understand the world and social movements by using dialectical materialism. The point was not to tell people how they must think; rather, the point was to open doors to dialectical materialism, whet appetites and contribute something to groups like ours who need to return to the Marxist basics. And because we cannot understand thinking and dialectical materialism and how to apply these in the world so easily, I relied on several authors, and particularly on Alexander Spirkin, for direction, and I provided links to their works. A reader might stumble over what I wrote, but she will find clarification by following the links and doing a little reading. In fact, many readers already understand these concepts but don't realize that they do. The careful reader will see that I left many important points out of my posts. If I sounded overly deterministic, or if I seemed to be saying that Marxism and dialectical materialism are ultimately predictive tools, then I was wrong.

Several readers have asked why we have not taken up the question of Marxism and morality. We followed the 9 posts on thinking with news of the Sanders movement, critiques of the left and commentaries on some of the struggles we are engaged in. We provided a short piece on Marxism and mental health and a song summary of basic arguments made in Marx's Capital. Why did we skip talking about morality?

Morality is a tough issue to take on and our arguments may sound half-baked or be misunderstood. Conventional arguments over morality focus on sexual relations and ethics or take religion as their starting point. The US left has a tendency to reduce the conversation to exposing bourgeois hypocrisy and leaving it there. Liberals and Trotskyites often turn the conversation towards ethics and stop there. Critical thinkers, humanists and secularists often take the conversation into the area of values, and abstract values at that. My generation is immediately turned off when morality is mentioned. I want a conversation on morality based on dialectical materialism, but I'm hard-pressed to find current writing on the subject which represents my political tradition.

Let's reach back, then, and attempt to frame what is at stake here. What are we to make of this passage in The Communist Manifesto?

When the ancient world was in its last throes, the ancient religions were overcome by Christianity. When Christian ideas succumbed in the 18th century to rationalist ideas, feudal society fought its death battle with the then revolutionary bourgeoisie. The ideas of religious liberty and freedom of conscience merely gave expression to the sway of free competition within the domain of knowledge.

“Undoubtedly,” it will be said, “religious, moral, philosophical, and juridical ideas have been modified in the course of historical development. But religion, morality, philosophy, political science, and law, constantly survived this change.”

“There are, besides, eternal truths, such as Freedom, Justice, etc., that are common to all states of society. But Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.”

What does this accusation reduce itself to? The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs.

But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms.

The Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involved the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.

Note that at this point in The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels have focused on arguing that history is a matter of class struggle, that there are an array of contradictory forces present in capitalist society and that the ruling class, or bourgeoisie, is squaring off against the working class and the communists. One of their central arguments is that alienation in a capitalist society creates not only a basic hypocrisy, but also a kind of duplication as well: it is as if we see all personal and social relationships in a fun-house mirror. The goods and services which we might produce as free human beings unencumbered by capitalist ownership and a wage system take on an entirely different, almost mystical, identity once they become commodities with price tags and once our labor power is also commodified and given a price tag in a system driven by a capitalist class making profits. That loss of identity and that substitution of a distinctly capitalist identity and rationale echoes through all that we do---it is inescapable. Everything which holds capitalist production back must be abolished or reconfigured: religion, personal relationships, love, our relationship to the environment, family, national identity, race, gender and our understandings of time and human ability all give way to a distinctly capitalist redefinition and morality. Marx and Engels are arguing against this alienation, this duplication, the "foreignness" or fun-house mirror image of human activity and morality. It is morality divorced from its real human substance that they are at war with.        

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