The Ethics of Scientific Socialism
Marx rejected a universal morality54 just as he rejected a fixed human nature
but it is inaccurate to claim, as many have, that there is no morality to be found
in his philosophy. Morality for Marx was rooted in class. Good and bad for
working-class people was a function of their class interest and quite different
from the good and bad of the bourgeoisie. Moral systems that claimed to be for
the universal good, yet ignored class conflict, must be a fraud because class
conflict necessarily undermined the possibility of a universal good. Yet some
Marxists do make the claim for an absolute socialist morality.
Marx does indeed possess an ‘absolute’ moral criterion: the
unquestionable virtue of the rich, all-round expansion of capacities for
each individual. It is from this standpoint that any social formation is to
be assessed.55
And how is one to achieve this rich, all-round expansion of capacities? By
participation in class struggle. Marx believed that a classless society was not
just possible but an inevitable consequence of historical dialectical forces. The
play of class dialectics would, stage by stage, propel capitalist society through
socialism towards that classless society. The moral imperative was to work
towards that end. Furthermore only by participation in class struggle was
personal improvement possible.
In the modern world this entails both engagement with, and fanning the
flames of, those collective struggles against the dehumanizing and
alienating effects of capitalism through which our need for solidarity both
emerges and is realized.56
Socialist morality is rooted therefore in the particular interests of the working
class, but the success of those interests is considered ultimately to be in the
universal interest.57 Socialist morality is not an individual code of conduct.
Human beings are social beings and therefore socialist morality has meaning
only in a social context and only within the discipline of a collective struggle.
By forming and being active within trade unions and working class
political parties, workers create institutions through which they change
themselves. Working together in such institutions becomes a day to day
practice that both presupposes the need for solidarity and engenders a
spirit of solidarity within the working class. The virtues or character traits
that are thus promoted stand in direct opposition to the competitive
individualism of the capitalist marketplace.58
Solidarity is an important component of revolutionary socialist morality. It
satisfies a personal need and contributes to the empathy in human relationships.
We might say that it is the ‘soul’ of the great socialist enterprise.
The Classless Society
The promise of a classless society provided class struggle with a moral
compass. Without the desirability and inevitability of a classless society, there
would be no reason to choose between working-class morality and bourgeois
morality. The classless society made moral choice possible. It also gave
meaning to the concept of progress because industrialization would ensure
enough material production to satisfy everyone’s needs, thereby making
equality within a classless society a practical possibility. Given the importance
of the classless society in the Marxist view of the world, we are obliged to
explore it further.
Technically speaking, a classless society would lack distinctions of wealth,
income, education, culture or social network.59 In the Marxist conception, the
abolition of such distinctions would occur quite naturally following the seizure
of political power by the proletariat. Furthermore the state would also wither
because its only function is to maintain the exploitation of one class by another.
The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production
into State property. But, in doing this, it abolishes itself as proletariat,
abolishes all class distinction and class antagonisms, abolishes also the
State as State. Society, thus far, based upon class antagonisms, had need
of the State. That is, of an organization of the particular class which was,
pro tempore, the exploiting class, an organization for the purpose of
preventing any interference from without with the existing conditions of
production, and, therefore, especially, for the purpose of forcibly keeping
the exploited classes in the condition of oppression… The proletariat
seizes the public power, and… By this act, the proletariat frees the means
of production from the character of capital they have thus far borne, and
gives their socialized character complete freedom to work itself out.60
Note that the withering of the state might not happen immediately. But it would
happen inevitably because socialized production would have, as Engels puts it,
“complete freedom to work itself out”. He goes on to say:
The development of [socialized] production makes the existence of
different classes of society thenceforth an anachronism. In proportion as
anarchy in social production vanishes, the political authority of the State
dies out. Man, at last the master of his own form of social organization,
becomes at the same time the lord over Nature, his own master – free.61
This last sentence is of much significance. As the state dies out, different forms
of social organization become possible and thereby ‘Man’ becomes “lord over
Nature, his own master”. The phrase “lord over Nature” is not to be interpreted
in the environmental sense, as mastery over the external world of plants and
animals. Rather it suggests that the unnatural, alienated condition imposed by
exploitation and state oppression will disappear because its only cause will
have disappeared. In such circumstances the free human will be master of
his/her own character and will have no inclination to maintain class
distinctions. Whatever vices or weaknesses of character persist will be of the
trifling kind.
Engel’s faith in free humans to be lords over their own nature can only be
understood in the context of dialectical materialism, according to which human
character and well-being are determined first and foremost by material
circumstances. By appropriately adjusting those material circumstances, human
beings can in some sense be made equal. This is the justification for the famous
slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.62
By satisfying material needs, that is, by providing everyone with an
equivalence of the basic requirements of food, clothing, housing and so on, not
only is the egalitarian objective of socialism achieved, but something more –
the seeds of social conflict are eliminated. Is this a reasonable expectation?
The answer to this question depends on how one views the nature-nurture
problem. Marxists were firmly on the side of nurture. If material circumstances
determine everything, then differences endowed by nature can be ‘ironed out’
by appropriate material adjustments in the environment.63 If everyone has the
same material circumstances then there will be no differences to promote class
conflict, because all conflict having a material cause must also have a material
solution. Furthermore, diminishing class conflict would promote a more equal
distribution of material resources, leading inevitably by positive feedback to
the ideal classless society.
It may be reasonable to argue, as socialists do, that a more egalitarian
distribution of material benefits contributes to a better society. However during
the communist era faith in nurture became a dogma beyond all reason. The
consequences were particularly disastrous for Soviet agriculture under the
direction of the Russian agronomist, Lysenko.64 Lysenko promoted a form of
Lamarckism, the scientifically unsubstantiated belief that an organism’s
characteristics acquired as a result of a particular environment can be inherited
by their offspring. He did not claim that this was also true for human biology,
but there can be little doubt that Lysenko rose rapidly in the Soviet bureaucracy
because his Lamarckian beliefs were consistent with Marxist ideology as
embraced by Stalin.65 No one should enjoy material benefits in excess of those
appropriate to the service of the state.
Even in moderate hands, Marxist faith in nurture appears to have been naively
utopian – that is, to have depended on a belief that base human desires would
simply fall away in the absence of class exploitation. It was possibly an
understandable naivety in 19th century Britain when most social strife stemmed
from mass poverty. But even in the 1940s and despite recognizing the
corrupting influence of power, George Orwell continued to believe, according
to critic James Wood, in a “mystical revolution”,66 a revolution in which
English society would somehow keep all its good features and divest itself of
all bad features. For Orwell, social privilege was the source of all evil – get rid
of privilege and the exploitation of the working class would somehow take care
of itself. His reform agenda did not appear to have any means to deal with the
deeper origins of class exploitation in human psychology.
At this point, there are two criticisms that we can direct against the socialism of
Marx and Engels: first its claim to be scientific and second its naive trust in the
consequences of material egalitarianism. Concerning the first, the hallmark of
the scientific method is to ask questions, to conduct experiments in the pursuit
of answers and then to refine these answers through further questions and
experiments. The supposedly scientific part of scientific socialism was that part
which asserted the dialectical inevitability of class struggle leading through the
stage of socialism to a classless society. This element of Marxism borrowed
heavily from Hegel. Concerning this aspect of Marx, Bertrand Russell says,
“Broadly speaking, all the elements in Marx’s philosophy which are derived
from Hegel are unscientific, in the sense that there is no reason whatever to
suppose that they are true.”67 The neo-conservative Joshua Muravchik, in an
unsympathetic history of socialism, nevertheless makes a valid point – that the
utopian socialists, by establishing experimental communities, were in fact
attempting to apply the scientific method to human social organization. “Owen
and Fourier and their followers were the real ‘scientific socialists’. They hit
upon the idea of socialism, and they tested it by attempting to form socialist
communities.”68 Marx and Engels, on the other hand, made untestable
predictions about the future, especially when proclaiming the inevitability of a
classless society. They were certainly in no position to criticize utopian
socialism as unscientific.
The second criticism we can make of scientific socialism is its approach to
Socialists of all persuasions promote egalitarianism. Almost by definition, it is
supposed to make for a better society. Marxism promoted a strong form of
material egalitarianism. Engels was correct to chastise the utopian socialists for
being preoccupied with the vision of egalitarianism without being concerned
with the ‘how to get there’. It was certainly naive to ignore the significance of
class conflict and believe that those responsible for a system of cruel
exploitation would give way to moral appeal. But Marx and Engels then
replaced one piece of naivety with another – that the imposition of material
equality would somehow eradicate the seeds of vice and exploitation.
It is interesting that utopian visions often seem to depend on the imposition of
material equality. The tendency was already apparent in Sir Thomas More’s
Utopia published in 1518. In Utopia, everyone wears the same clothes (which
they make themselves preserving the natural colours) and everyone eschews
fashion. All houses are of the same construction and all streets and villages are
laid out according to the same design. No one desires to live in a bigger house
or in a better neighbourhood. Everyone works the same number of hours per
day. There is no privilege and therefore no resentment fuelled by inequality to
disturb the tranquil rhythm of Utopian life.
Bertrand Russell acknowledges that More’s Utopia was “in many ways
astonishingly liberal” for its day but is nevertheless dismayed with the vision:
It must be admitted, however, that life in More’s Utopia, as in most
others, would be intolerably dull. Diversity is essential to happiness, and
in Utopia there is hardly any.69
Russell might well have been talking about the USSR or Communist East
Germany. In fact the communist experience tells us that the dogmatic
imposition of equality, far from bringing utopia, spawns dystopia.
In an apparent reference to utopian socialism, Sarkar criticizes social theories
that sound “somewhat pleasing to the ear” and speak “glibly of human
equality” but which on application turn out to be ineffective because “the
fundamental principles of these philosophies were contrary to the basic realities
of the world”. “Diversity, not identity”, says Sarkar “is the law of nature”.
The world is full of diversities – a panorama of variegated forms and
rhythms. One must never forget it. Sometimes the superficial display of
these theories [that speak glibly of equality] has dazzled the eyes of the
onlooker, but actually they contained no dynamism. And yet, dynamism
is indeed the first and last word of human existence. That which has lost
its dynamism is just like a stagnant pool. In the absence of flow, a pond
invariably becomes overgrown with weeds, and becomes a hazard to
health. It is better to fill this sort of pond with earth. Many philosophies
in the past have rendered this kind of disservice to humanity.70
In conclusion, the fundamental problem with both the theory of Marxism and
its practice, as manifest in the USSR and Eastern Europe, was an inadequate
understanding of individual and collective psychology. It is true that later
Marxist intellectuals, such as Gramsci and Marcuse, attempted a fusion of
Western psychology with Marxist materialism, but for the practical
implementation of Marxism it was too little and too late.
Egalitarianism remains today the most contentious and polarizing political
issue in democratic nations. How far should governments go in promoting
equality? Should they target equality of opportunity or equality of outcomes?
What is an acceptable level of wealth inequality? So polarizing are these
questions in the body politic that all political identity is defined in terms of
them – in terms of the so-called left-right spectrum. Policies are somewhere on
the spectrum from extreme left to extreme right. The following passage from
Stretton is helpful in clarifying definitions:
Some people favour greater or less equality for its own sake. Others
favour greater or less equality as a means to other ends, such as
productive efficiency or the reduction of poverty. (There are hard choices
for the Left if it is ever true that greater equality may reduce productivity
and for the Right if greater equality may increase productivity.) Whatever
their reasons, this text generally uses Right for those who want greater
inequality than exists in their society, Left for those who want greater
equality, and Centre or middle of the road for those who don’t want much
change in either direction.71