‘Marxism and Ethics: Freedom, Desire, and Revolution’ reviewed by David Marjoribanks

Marxism and Ethics: Freedom, Desire, and Revolution

State University of New York Press, Albany, 2012. 249pp., $80 hb
ISBN 9781438439914

Reviewed by David Marjoribanks

About the reviewer

David Marjoribanks is an Associate Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent. His PhD thesis …


The interface between Marxism and ethics has always been rather ambiguous. On one hand, Marx rarely engaged in ethical discourse, and when he broached the subject often dismissed it as pernicious ideological abstraction. Morality, for historical materialism, does not stand apart from society and history, but is part of the ‘ideological and political superstructure’ which arises on the basis of a mode of production. It is therefore social and historical. Since all consciousness is socially determined, moral ideas, it seems, reflect or express prevailing social relations. They ‘belong to’ these relations, and thus cannot provide the basis for transcendent, trans-historical assessments of them. Hence Marx frequently attacked socialists who offered ethical critiques of capitalism. Communism, Marx and Engels emphasised, “is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” (Marx and Engels 1976, 49)

At the same time, however, Marx advocated communism not merely as a scientific prediction, but as an ethical ideal. Further, his critiques of capitalist exploitation and alienation also seem to require ethical premises and commitments to freedom and self-realisation, for example. This ambiguity in the founders has plagued Marxism ever since.

In this important study, Paul Blackledge provides a thorough, detailed and wide-ranging account of the controversies around ethical questions in the history of Marxism. However, it also becomes quickly apparent that this is not just an impressive historical account of the debates on socialism and ethics from Marx and Engels, through Bernstein, Kautsky, Lenin, Lukács, and Gramsci, to the Frankfurt School, Sartre and the British New Left. It is also an interpretation of Marx’s moral viewpoint as centring on an historical approach to freedom and the virtues of solidarity which emerge through collective struggle, and an essay on political strategy in defence of the Leninist-Lukácsian conception of socialist practice (including vanguardism) and political agency. This book is about Marxism more generally, and Blackledge offers an interpretation of classical Marxism which finds the resources for an ethical socialist practice based on the centrality of workers’ self-activity.

As a consequence of the ambiguity and apparent ‘moral deficit’ in Marxism and the split between scientific socialism and ethical discourse, Blackledge notes that several contemporary philosophers in both the analytical and continental camps have abandoned Marxism in favour of a turn to ethics. G. A. Cohen, for example, rejected what he called the “obstetric” conception of political practice, according to which socialists are mere midwives, bringing into existence a new form of society already developing within the womb of capitalism, which digs its own grave as The Communist Manifesto famously put it. Cohen therefore turned to utopian moralising based on transhistorical principles of justice. On the other side of the Channel, against Althusserian anti-humanism (itself a response to the humanist critique of Stalinism), philosophers such as Alain Badiou and Simon Critchley have similarly turned away from Marxism to ethics. This ethical turn, Blackledge notes, is usually coupled with a general pessimism about the possibility for socialist agency in the contemporary world, after the defeats of the working class under the triumph of neo-liberalism. On the other hand, if these thinkers’ ethical turn reflects a political pessimism, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s ethical anti-capitalism is dismissed as “almost wilfully naive in its optimism” (10), and Slavoj Žižek’s voluntarism, while focusing attention back to politics, similarly fails to examine the capitalist social relations of the modern state, Blackledge argues.

Blackledge’s position thus emerges between these two alternatives: either optimism with inadequate political analysis or ethical utopianism and political pessimism. Marxism, he argues, can overcome the political limitations of ethical anti-capitalism and the ethical limitations of a Nietzschean ‘nihilist’ political rejection of ethics. Blackledge follows Alasdair MacIntyre in holding that such Nietzschean nihilism has its rational roots in the ‘emotivist’ moral culture of bourgeois society.

The third way between these alternatives for Blackledge was identified by the early MacIntyre, although the basis lies in Hegel, who followed Aristotle in thinking that ethics must start from a model of the human essence and a goal of self-realisation, but followed Kant in recognising that it is only through freedom that this could be achieved. Hegel historicised the concept of the human essence, Blackledge notes, by pointing to the social content of freedom.

His taking up of MacIntyre’s early Marxist ethics takes Blackledge onto the issue of MacIntyre’s later rejection of Marxism. A key question becomes whether or not MacIntyre’s assessment of Marxism is justified. But Blackledge accepts wholesale MacIntyre’s famous indictment of the emotivist nature of modern moral culture, and thus his question is not only whether MacIntyre’s later assessment of Marxism is right, but also whether Marxism contains moral resources which might “extricate us from the crisis of modern moral philosophy” (36) and “inform those anti-capitalist struggles which could contribute to overcoming the social basis for our contemporary moral fragmentation” (36). His conclusion is that collective working-class struggles can indeed provide a viable and virtuous alternative to modern moral theory’s predicament and also “point to the concrete social content of the struggle for freedom in the modern world” (43).

On the issue of Marxism’s moral view, Blackledge argues that “Marx’s attempt to escape the impotence of moral theory is best understood not as a nihilistic rejection of ethics, but more narrowly as a refusal of the modern liberal assumption … that moral behaviour involves the suppression of our naturally egoistic desires on the basis of a disembodied conception of reason” (3). A coherent ethics can be found in Marx, he argues, but it must be understood within a wider whole – a view of society from the standpoint of the working class. Marx did not reject morality, but rooted it in revolutionary practice.

The content of this ethical practice is freedom as self-determination. First, freedom is grounded in the satisfaction of basic needs. Second, as productivity increases, needs expand, and the human being ‘rich in needs’ emerges. The realisation of needs is thus the social content of this historicised conception of freedom. Blackledge demonstrates that for Marx it was the collective working-class struggles over the working day that reveal an alternative to capitalism and a model of historical progress. The historicised human essence as freedom, Blackledge argues, is best conceived as an “immanent potential which evolves over time through a process of collective struggles shaped by the development of humanity’s productive forces” (57). The concrete content therefore changes through history. Marx saw that “capitalism’s inhumanity compelled workers to rebel … and grasp toward those forms of association through which they could make concrete … [freedom]” (75). Workers’ solidarity became the real basis of need and desire. Through struggle itself the working class could escape their atomisation and dehumanisation to become a collective agency capable of overthrowing the established order and achieving the (historicised) human essence – freedom. Thus, Marx’s ethics is rooted in workers’ real struggles, themselves based on their interests.

Despite Blackledge’s achievements, here some weaknesses begin to show. He is disappointingly vague on the content of this moral view, and seems content merely to show that it has its basis in Marx rather than explain and defend it. To be fair, this is partly because the early MacIntyre himself is also rather vague, and doesn’t add much beyond the conception of freedom based in need that Blackledge identifies in Marx. Freedom is realised through social self-determination, and its content is given by the realisation of needs: the needs of ‘social humanity’. But what are ‘social individuals’? And why should we think that they require socialism? Blackledge follows MacIntyre in thinking that capitalism creates an agency “whose struggles embody a new democratic spirit, through which individuals come to understand both that their needs and desires can best be satisfied through collective channels, and that they do in fact need and desire solidarity” (182). But feelings of solidarity can take many different forms (think of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’) and these may not necessarily be incompatible with capitalism. And even if we necessarily come to need and desire solidarity, do we ‘naturally’ desire socialism? This seems a rather more controversial, perhaps essentialist, claim. Since he notes that freedom has social content, Blackledge does not need to engage in abstract reasoning about what this freedom means; it has a social existence. But he does not give sufficient argument for thinking that in our time the concrete existence of freedom is in fact socialism, just waiting to be realised immanently.

Furthermore, Blackledge does not justify this conjunction of need, desire and freedom, although it is an absolutely central theme. He sides with Lucien Goldmann’s view of Marxism as a ‘wager’ (142) that working-class revolutionary activity can make workers fit for self-government, and can align human needs with the desire for (socialist) solidarity. But since this is merely a wager, and does not have any naturalistic basis (since human nature is historicised), there is little reason given to similarly partake in it. Blackledge sides with Marx and Lukács’s claim that the particular interests of workers and the universal human interests are linked. But this is a questionable assumption, and Marx gives no real argument for this contentious claim. It seems rather to rely on a teleological conception of the proletariat’s ‘historical mission’, and may smuggle in substantive conceptions of the ‘universal interest’ quite aside from the actual interest of particular workers in struggle. Lukács relies on asserting the proletariat’s mission in the “meaning of history”, and Marx’s assumption that the proletariat can only emancipate itself by emancipating all others seems to rely on an unargued assertion of its ontological status as the bearer of a genuine unity of particularity and universality. Blackledge is not sufficiently critical of this idealist strand in Lukács and Marx.

And a question which Blackledge does not raise is why all this mention of needs and desires is necessary, if it ultimately comes down to a wager. The notion of ‘immanent potential’ evolving through time has teleological connotations. But Blackledge does not spell this out. And his Lukácsian teleology seems at odds with his voluntarism.

Blackledge locates ethical objectivity in the working-class’ real struggles. This avoids the emotivism that MacIntyre diagnoses in modern moral culture. Marx criticises the existing order, he says, “from the point of view of real struggles against it and judges that in the present epoch workers’ struggles point toward a fuller realisation of human freedom” (92). Such struggles bring about an objective need for solidarity. But there are two standpoints here, which may come apart: real struggles (procedure) and human freedom (substance). Blackledge follows Marx, who claims that the need for society, although initially a necessary means, becomes an end (93). He does not consider whether there might be a distinction between a proceduralist line here and a substantive one, if the two do not happen to fortuitously align. On the former, it is the process of working-class struggles which is to be valued, and which have reality. It is in the struggle itself that workers come to acquire the virtues of solidarity and in which freedom has concrete existence in their desire for such solidarity. On the latter, such struggles are means to substantive ends (specified independently) such as freedom. If the workers’ struggles are taken procedurally, the problem is that such struggles might not ground socialism (they might lead to all sorts of alternatives). If, however, struggles and the virtues they bring are taken substantively, and freedom is not just whatever emerges from struggle, socialism would seem to be one more subjective preference, subject to the emotivism that Blackledge is keen to avoid. Socialist freedom would require independent justification.

Blackledge argues, for instance, that Alex Callinicos’s deployment of ‘informed desire’ in defence of egalitarianism cannot escape relativism, since “he does not link the standpoint of workers’ struggles to his preferred concept of human nature through a historically emergent conception of desire” (169). However, solidarity in some form may be a need, but can collective democratic control of our labour be given such a naturalistic foundation? Blackledge’s historicised conception of human nature is open to the same challenge of emotivism as he levels at Callinicos.

What is more, it is not at all clear why socialists should even be troubled as Blackledge is by the emotivist menace that MacIntyre sees in modernity. Blackledge has rather inexplicably bought MacIntyre’s critique of modernity wholesale, while rejecting his critique of Marxism. But MacIntyre’s concern is that we have no means of rational justification for what are ‘simulacra of morality’ in modernity. But why should we care about a metaethical inability to rationally justify our moral positions? Given the centrality of practice to Blackledge’s account, one wonders why he doesn’t take a pragmatist response to MacIntyre.

Against MacIntyre’s assessment of Marxism, Blackledge argues that Welsh mining communities, sustained by virtues of solidarity, challenge his pessimism and demonstrate the possibility of overcoming fragmentation and atomisation through working class collective practice. But these examples are taken from the 1980s, and a lot has happened since then in terms of working-class defeats and the triumph of neo-liberalism. What are the chances of such virtuous resistance today? Although it is to his credit that he confronts the issue, Blackledge is rather vague. He writes that “to the extent that [workers’] struggles, despite their weaknesses, point to a political alternative to capitalism, I suggest that MacIntyre’s youthful politics retain their salience” (194). But what is this extent? Blackledge’s assessment of the possibilities for anti-capitalist resistance in workers’ struggles is confined to a few pages in the conclusion. He suggests reasons for optimism about the prospects for such proletarian self-activity, in that the number of wage-labourers has increased globally, even if the working class has experienced restructuring, that exploitation has continued salience, and he cites a few surveys which have found class to remain a relevant category and notes that conclusions that the defeats and fragmentation of the working class amount to a qualitative break with the past are simplistic. Be all that as it may, it remains an open question whether there are forms of resistance capable of carrying us beyond capitalism to socialism. Even if exploitation, alienation, etc. are far from disappearing, and the numbers of wage-labourers has increased, and, indeed, that the current crisis has led to the prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxy being challenged, it remains far from clear that classical socialism is back on the agenda.

2 December 2012


  • Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick 1976 The German Ideology Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works Vol. 5 (London: Lawrence and Wishart).


  1. David Majoribanks has offered an excellent account of Blackledge’s book in his review above, in both its strengths and weaknesses. I want to just add a few points that develop the argument about the relationship between marxism and ethics. Firstly it needs to be said that Paul Blackledge has done a series of valuable things with his recent book; the first is that he has put the whole question of Marxism and its relationship to ethics back on the agenda, which I see as very valuable. Secondly he has pointed, possibly implicitly, to the importance of the Hegelian Marxist ‘1968’ tradition as offering the most promising place to begin thinking about the relationship of ethics to political and class struggle. Thirdly, by collecting all of MacIntyre’s early ‘marxist’ work, (in a collection published by Haymarket in 2005) he has reminded us what an interesting and creative thinker he was – and still is?
    The question mark about Blackledge’s approach to MacIntyre illustrates for me another aspect of the books weaknesses from that which David rightly points out. Having read Blackledge’s collection of MacIntyre’s early writings, as well as MacIntyre’s later work (“After Virtue” is probably his best known), I think Blackledge’s problem is that he over-values the marxist MacIntyre and undervalues the non-marxist later writings of MacIntyre. The early writings, while being really interesting and valuable as an attempt to talk about a form of marxism which has rejected Stalinism as well as Trotskyism, do not offer a coherant account of the relationship between marxism and ethics; partially because I don’t think he himself is trying to do that. I think marxists have to accept that for MacIntyre to develop his own original thinking on Ethics, he felt, rightly or wrongly, that he had to leave the Marxist stable and label. Having said that, I think there is much in the later MacIntyre that marxists could use – for example MacIntyre’s on Virtue Ethics, were it able to be linked in some ways with a historical materialist perspective, is a really interesting way of thinking about marxism and ethics as a form of praxis – indeed it is important to be aware that there important continuities in MacIntyre’s thinking on these issues. It goes without saying that there is much more work to be done on thinking about these things, but as I was writing my own book on these issues (“The Ethical Foundations of Social Work, Pearson-Longman 2012, written with Annie Pullen-Sansfacon) I was trying to think through some of these questions.
    The other point about Hegelian marxism and 1968. I think this is a key period for thinking through these issues if we look at the work of the Situationists, thinkers like Satre, De Beavoir, Meszaros, Ranciere, and indeed the work of a thinker like Paulo Freire. Freire’s book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” was recently characterised by Jones Irwin as a key text of Hegelian marxism (though it is rarely understood in those terms). Irwin’s new book on Freire “Paulo Freire’s Philosophy of Education” (Continuum 2012) is one of the first books on Freire that has a sufficiently rigourous account of his work that allows the question of Friere as a thinker who is trying to work through these question about marxism, ethics and praxis, to opened up.
    In conclusion, I think Paul Blackledge has opened up a really important debate, and one which there is much to be gained by continuing with.
    Stephen Cowden

  2. According to Blackledge’s reading of Marx, it is the historical fact of the inhumanity of capitalism, insofar ti compels the workers to rebel, that should explain the birth, by dialectic contrast, of a desire for solidarity, capable to give a new ethical ground to the collective practice, through which human beings are ‘naturally’ bound to strive to realize freedom Blackledge defines as self-determination. Freedom is not a disembodied concept, but an “immanent potential which evolves over time”, rooted in men’s egoistic nature as it develops and transforms itself in the course of history.

    Some observations:

    This historical and social ‘compelling’, which should bring about so dramatic an ethical turn towards solidarity as to motivate the choice for socialism, is an external force, something by which individuals are acted upon, whereas a desire is for individuals an internal source of actions.

    Of the two one:

    History and society can completely mould individuals, shaping their behaviours, their consciousness as well as their emotional life and their conscience.

    In this case, it seems useless to talk of a human nature, unless the idea of human nature we have is that of a sort of play dough history can freely model as it likes, and we have chosen to embrace a view that leads to a totalitarian type of society..

    The moulding power history exerts over individuals has hard limits. If there is a human nature, and this is not an inert matter to be freely modeled by history, there must be something that is irreducible to society and is never transferred to it.

    In this case, the problem is: how can we compound this irreducible aspect of the individual life with the Marx’s refusal of the ethical assumptions of the modern liberal thought, so opportunely underscored by Blackledge ? Marx’s refusal categorically excludes that human nature may consist in an abstract universal definition about what man is, or in a disembodied concept of it.

    I think that is the difficulty to sort this problem out that accounts for the oscillations between volontarism and teleologism Marjoribank traces in Blackledge ‘s work.

    Difficulty and oscillations which are far from involving the Blackledge’s work only.

    It is a Blackledge’s merit to remind us that a satisfactory explanation of the ethical behavior, can’t resort to an idea of the world of man as if it was a separated realm, an “imperium in imperio” (Spinoza).

    But where is the way out? Is it wrong , from a Marxist point of view, to consider the Spinoza’s philosophy a resource for the purpose?

  3. There is a contradiction at the heart of Blackledge’s book regarding his approach to modernity.

    Modernity places freedom at the heart of morality and this is the tradition that Marx inherits from Kant, Fichte and Hegel. Blackledge is fully aware of this and writes that Marx follows Kant in putting ‘… human freedom at the centre of his social theory, whilst arguing that Kant fails to understand real human freedom.’ According to Blackledge, Kant’s conception of freedom operates independently of human nature/desire and fails to ground (moral) values in (material) facts. This arises because Kant views material interests through the prism of capitalism as inherently selfish. To reconcile modern freedom with human nature/desire Blackledge turns to Aristotelianism – as mediated by the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre. It is perhaps too strong to say, as David Marjoribanks does, that Blackledge buys ‘MacIntyre’s critique of modernity wholesale’. Nevertheless, the fact he buys any part of it is a cause for concern.

    Although Macintyre began his intellectual career on the left, by the early 1980s he had become a Catholic and adopted a reactionary stance towards modernity, which finds expression in After Virtue (1981). After Virtue rejects the Enlightenment project and the modern conception of freedom it inaugurates as a new ‘dark age’, which was not only mistaken but should never have been commenced in the first place (ibid., p.118). In the process, Macintyre follows Martin Heidegger in identifying modernity with Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’. We are then obliged to choose between Nietzsche (modernity) or Aristotle (pre-modernity) – ‘There is no third alternative’ (ibid).

    MacIntyre aims to discredit modernity and the norm of freedom upon which its legitimacy rests. To this end, he argues that without a pre-modern form of objective morality (in which values are derived from facts) we are lost in a world of clashing subjective values. Modernity unleashes a ‘catastrophe’, which destroys the objective foundations that render moral agreement possible. These foundations are not simply pre-modern and Aristotelian they are also natural and divine.

    ‘Every human being, on this view, has by nature a desire for that happiness which is achieved only in union to God, integral to which is recognition of God as the truth and of all truth from God so that the progress through truths to the truth is itself one part of the ascent of mind and heart to God’ (MacIntyre 2006, p.212).

    Nevertheless, MacIntyre’s argument against modernity is disingenuous. Pre-modern morality is not based in ‘agreement’ – unless its agreement with a pre-existing (God-given) moral order. It is based on conformity with moral facts and embodied in a moral tradition (such as Thomism). To this end, MacIntyre grounds morality in ‘… standards of truth and rationality independent of the enquirer, founded on something other than social agreement’ (MacIntyre 2006, p.173). This is not surprising as only modernity places a premium on the freedom of social agents to agree their own moral rules. From a modern perspective, as Charles Taylor notes, Aristotelianism appears authoritarian.

    ‘… [A]n Aristotelian theory or any theory based on an antecedent notion of the good as prescribed by nature – is profoundly repugnant. It does not exalt the freedom of the subject as one ought, but rather preempts it’ (Taylor, 1993, p.347).

    If as Blackledge argues Marx’s critique of capitalism is grounded in modern freedom, then it cannot be reconciled with Aristotelianism. From a modern standpoint, capitalism is unjust, illegitimate and immoral because it robs humanity of the right to democratically control our own economic practices (free of instability, inequality and oppressive working conditions). In contrast, Macintyre provides a reactionary critique of capitalism that seeks to restore the traditional forms of moral community, which capitalism dissolves. According to this tradition, each individual has a duty to maintain the (objective) moral ends of the community to which they belong and is judged ‘virtuous’ (or otherwise) in relation to the prescribed social functions/roles they perform.

    For all his philosophical insights, Blackledge fails to appreciate the revolutionary difference that modernity makes to morality. This is encapsulated in the modern principle that moral rules are only legitimate if freely agreed by those to whom they apply. It alone makes a critique of capitalism progressive. MacIntyre not only fails to abide by the modern principle of freedom, he sets out to discredit it in the name of Aristotle, Aquinas, Catholicism and God.

  4. As a human biologist I would maintain that there is a basic “Human Nature”. But these properties simply consist of the need to eat, drink and rest, & etc. These properties also include however, for good historical [ie. evolutionary] reasons the deep-seated instincts to avoid pain and discomfort and to seek their absence.
    Consequently, I would argue that any morality or ethics must be cognizant of these basic human characteristics. Of course, in addition, one must also be aware that humans also carry the capacity of cruelty, murder etc, which may be used for purposes which different observers may label positive or negative.
    Thirdly, even these most deep-seated instincts of eating, drinking, or even of staying alive may be overcome by the application of a strong will, as evidenced throughout history, but recently in Ireland and in the Middle East.
    It seems to me that ethics should only ever be based on contemporary human experience. And that the basic biology of human beings must be borne in mind. This is what I understand by the notion that socialism should strive to realise the potential of our species, so that we may truly become Homo sapiens.

  5. At the risk of straying from Marjoribanks illuminating and helpful review if ‘human nature’ is instinctively determined, something that does not require conscious thought but is a instinctual reaction or action, something we cannot control without consciously resisting and overcoming our own nature then we are not acting in accordance with consciousness but are ‘out of our minds’ that is our behaviour is not something we can be held repsonsibile for. In this sense ‘human nature’ is meaningless activity, it is directed by instinct not thought. It is difficult to see how conscious thought recognises and overcomes instinct insead of just acting instinctively in accordance with our ‘human nature?’ In this instance it would seem that altruism (if it truly exists) is an overcoming of our ‘human nature’.

    Its hard to see that ethics can be cognizant of human nature – unless of course ethics is not derived entirely from conscious thought but is determined or corresponds in part at least to ‘human nature’. The notion of ‘human nature’ corresponding to ethics or vice versa drives us further from history and correspondence to the materialiy of our social existence. Rooting human being in nature is to deny the ontological autonomy of human being. All too often history encounters the defence that exploitation and oppression is the result of ‘human nature.’

  6. I am not sure to whom the comment above by Eric Longley is directed, but I think that there is in his comment a lack of precision as to what he means by human nature. The point that I wished to make is simply that while we should be cognizant of our biological properties, we also must recognise that ethical decisions are related to our human, social experiences. Thus, I agree that we should strive to base our ethical decisions on social reality. For me, the most basic social reality of contemporary capitalism is the existence of social classes and their mutual irreconcilable antagonisms.

  7. It is well known that the later Marx is silent on ethical questions, so talking about Marx and ethics means looking at the early Marx, especially his critique of Hegel’s works. As to the tradition of ethics in Marxism, that is a thorny and ambiguous affair, with a plurality of views which are irreconcilable. The centrality of the labour process, freedom as liberated, disalienated labour is a theme that was not mentioned in the review. The tradition of Schiller’s aesthetic education of man, which clearly influenced Marx’s conception of the total, whole man, a theme elaborated by Lukacs, and later Marcuse, is also not mentioned. Such critical perspectives on work practice and disalienation from exploitative conditions seem to me the foundations of any Marxist ethics, since they do not propose an essence of man, but simply the conditions through which people can realise their full potential.

  8. The later Marx was actually not silent on issues of ethics, as Blackledge keenly points out. The end of Capital Vol III, and The Critique of the Gotha Program are two instances worthy of mentioning.

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