Friday, May 27, 2016

Marxism and Morality---Part Two

(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. Please see the first post in this series.)

The point that we closed our first post with perhaps needs further development. I am saying that real historic development resting in the relative sophistication of the mode of production and the superstructure built over it determine social consciousness and ideology.

Okay, that's a mouthful and I'm trying to make things easier. Let's say that people in slave-holding or feudal societies thought about human beings flying or were reaching for an understanding of the cosmos which was scientific at its core. They could only go so far with their thinking and they could not translate their strivings into action. It took the advent of capitalism, the freeing up of the resources burned in slave-holding and feudal societies, the triumph of the ideas of the Enlightenment and similar revolutions which occurred in other parts of the world, the suppression of religious prejudices and the triumph of the scientific methods of inquiry and resolution and the marshalling of all of the knowledge and wealth that the slave-holding and feudal societies had in order to eventually put airplanes in the sky and begin mapping the cosmos. Much was lost in the passing of the old, much was gained in the advent of the new and new strivings were birthed which today come up against the cold and destructive reality of capitalism.

Within this oppressive capitalist reality we take sides as a matter of course, often without realizing that we do. There is a dominant and historic movement which favors progress, based in science and in the working class and in the peoples' social movements, and there is a reaction to progress by the capitalists and the leaders of the old institutions which are threatened by progress and science. We get it wrong if we look at this mechanically or with naive optimism: capitalism can play a progressive social role to a point, and not all workers are on the side of science and progress. We are talking here about general tendencies over time, and not what the guy next to you in the store thinks about Obama.

As socialists we want a "morality" which comes with human progress, the idea that humanity can exist for and of itself, and not a "morality" which holds that our options are circumscribed by anything external to us. We want a morality which does not separate us from the rest of nature. We want a morality which understands us as struggling human beings who must cope with all of the contradictions basic to capitalism, find our ways through the real and the possible and create a socialistic or cooperative ethos and a system based on a redistribution of the wealth and power accumulated by a relatively small number of people under capitalism before the capitalists push us to extinction. Hear what else The Communist Manifesto has to say here:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

If human beings can summon our will and power and forge an entirely new social consciousness and social relations, then it stands to reason that we need a new or better morality. This could not be a morality of individualism, since individualism ultimately negates freedom and cannot be fully realized, and it cannot be a morality based on bourgeois prejudices or ancient myths, since the bourgeois prejudices have had their destructive day and the ancient myths can never be fully brought back to life in their "pure" form in a modern social order. To be sure, something of the past always remains in the present, and we have the ability to pick from the past the most beautiful of its progressive forms and give these forms new content and meaning, but they cannot dominate us if we are truly about progress and freedom. And since we prove what is true in the world by acting and evaluating and acting again, we need a morality or ethics which opens the door to human action and thought and keeps it open.

Action and thought done properly with others should give us power and agency, and morality and ethics need to anticipate this. Under these circumstances, then, we see human freedom as resting on the responsibility to do no harm and on the organization of society in such a way that it liberates all of us by organizing our capabilities and allowing our better cooperative natures to flourish. "Scientific" processes take us to these points of individual and collective freedom: the "sciences" of dialectical materialism, class struggle and socialism. If we must distinguish between values or morality on the one hand, and science, we do so here so that a future humanity can resolve the contradictions between the two and create a new human being, a person who more fully grasps a rhetoric of the whole person. We throw aside a "morality" which serves as propaganda and as a justification for oppression in favor of a morality and ethics which comprehends a full and empowered person functioning at her best in a cooperative society. When the limitations placed upon us by wage labor, commodity production and the extraction of surplus value under capitalist conditions are lifted, productive and social resources will be freed which will enable and encourage the birth of a new and whole person--a person for whom "morality" is not an external rule, but a subjective and ever-evolving means and end connecting her to others in healthy and productive ways. A new morality or ethics can arise as we are freed of hypocrisy, dualism and alienation.   

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