‘Constructing Marxist Ethics: Critique, Normativity, Praxis’ reviewed by David Leopold

Constructing Marxist Ethics: Critique, Normativity, Praxis

Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2015. 386pp., €139,00 / $180.00 hb
ISBN 9789004254145

Reviewed by David Leopold

About the reviewer

David Leopold is the author of The Young Karl Marx. Modern Politics, German Philosophy, and Human …


The relationship between Marx and morality is a thorny topic, which raises a cluster of interesting theoretical and political issues, and generates little consensus amongst commentators. Disputes include: whether Marx’s work contains a critique of morality as such (rather than, say, a critique merely of ‘moralising’); whether Marx ever advances any moral claims himself (rather than, perhaps, claims based only on what Allen Wood calls ‘non-moral goods’); and, amongst those who think there is such a critique and there are such claims, whether there is a problematic tension between them, and whether, and how, such a tension might be resolved.

Even where broad agreement on one of these issues exists, there remain plenty of scope for interpretative dispute. For example, those who agree that Marx advances moral claims, often disagree about whether those claims involve appeals to considerations of justice. And those who agree that he makes justice-based claims often disagree about their precise character; perhaps Marx has distributive concerns but rejects the notion of moral rights. Even those who agree about their precise character often disagree about whether Marx fully understood his own ethical views; Norman Geras memorably proposed that Marx did think that capitalism was unjust but he did not think that he thought so.

Michael J. Thompson has assembled fourteen contributors, ranging professionally from graduate student to professors emeriti, with a wide spectrum of views and subject matters. Despite that diversity, Constructing Marxist Ethics does have an organising consensus, together with some less universal but still recurring themes.

That organising consensus is that Marx’s critique of class-divided society and his vision of socialism do involve some kind of ethical theory. There is disagreement about how explicit this commitment is, and about how substantive it is, and in what precisely it consists, but broad agreement about its existence. Moreover, rather than engaging at length with those who deny their existence, most of the contributors focus on the structure and content of Marx’s positive ethical views. In places, I wished for more close textual discussion of Marx (not just passing invocation of the Famous Quotations), for more dialogue with contemporary moral philosophy (to help locate the views attributed to him), and for all of the papers to meet the standards of clarity and argumentation established by the best of them. However, the positive focus of the book remains welcome, since the precise character of Marx’s ethical views is poorly understood.

Some recurring themes should also be noted. Many contributors plausibly portray Marx’s ethical views as broadly perfectionist, identifying the moral good with the development and deployment of human nature. In this context, I was pleased to see some contributors shifting the focus away from Marx’s much-discussed early works, and drawing evidence of these perfectionist commitments from a wider and later range of his writings. As for precursors of Marx’s ethical views, there is much emphasis on the parallels with, and debts to, Aristotle, in particular. There remain, of course, plenty of disagreement about how conscious and how substantive these echoes of ancient philosophy are, but the agreement is noteworthy.

Constructing Marxist Ethics contains thirteen chapters organised into three groups. Part One, entitled ‘Marxist Humanism and Ethical Models’, contains four chapters.

In Chapter 1, ‘The Marxian Roots of Radical Humanism’, Lawrence Wilde maintains that Marx does not have a moral theory, but that his early writings, in particular, contain the ingredients of one. Marx is said to have ‘turned his back on moral discourse’ for purely tactical reasons – it distracted from socio-economic analysis – which no longer apply. Happily, with a little help from Erich Fromm, we can seemingly reconstruct a ‘radical humanist ethics’ from Marx’s understanding of human nature and the conditions for its realisation. Marx is said to focus on the social conditions which either frustrate, or facilitate, the flourishing of the human capacities for ‘love, reason, productive work and solidarity’.

In Chapter 2, ‘The Idea of the Struggle for Recognition in the Ethical Thought of the Young Marx and Its Relevance today’, Tony Burns also focuses on Marx’s early writings and the ethical critique which can be found in them. This critique is said to have close affinities with Hegel’s account of ‘recognition’ (from the well-ploughed ‘master-slave’ section of the Phenomenology). The inappropriate separation of human beings from each other is expressed in a form of social ‘slavery’ which is incompatible with reciprocal recognition (itself based on a shared commitment to equality). On this account, Marx emerges, somewhat surprisingly, as a ‘recognition theorist’ closely linked to the contemporary work of Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, and others.

In Chapter 3, ‘Political Economy and the Normative. Marx on Human Nature and the Quest for Dignity’, Lauren Longman and Dan Albanese offer a discursive piece (ranging from Darwin’s theory of emotions to recent incarnations of critical theory). Their account of Marx’s ethical views again rests on his understanding of human nature and desire, but his main ethical goal is identified here as human ‘dignity’. The human drive for dignity is said to be frustrated by class-divided societies, in part through various ideological mechanisms, and fulfilled only in a democratic society in which recognition is present and alienation absent. There is also enthusiasm here for the relevance of Hegel’s ‘master-slave’ dialectic, and the work of Erich Fromm.

In Chapter 4, ‘Art as Ethics. The Aesthetic Self’, Ian Fraser offers what is, thematically speaking, one of the more wayward papers in the collection. He sketches Marx’s views on art, and then explores them in relation to Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory. Marx sees human beings as artists when they affirm their creative and productive powers (self-realisation establishing the connection between art and ethics). In capitalist societies our aesthetic activities variously resist, or succumb to, the ‘rule of exchange value’, but only embody the ethical impulse when they are resisting. In contrast to Houellebecq’s misanthropic and despairing vision, Marx foresees the possibility of a communist future in which affirmation of our aesthetic selves is not undermined and corrupted by the constraints of the rule of capital.

Part Two of the present volume, entitled ‘Critical Perspectives on Rights and Justice’, contains another four chapters.

In Chapter 5, ‘Reclaiming Marx. Principles of Justice as a Critical Foundation in Moral Realism’, Wadood Y. Hamad maintains that Marx holds a ‘radical historicist approach to ethics’. Not all of the ensuing interpretation was clear to me, but Marx is said to reject ‘timeless criteria’ (including the notions of ‘rational necessity’ and ‘universal obligation’), and to be left with ‘contingent, community-specific agreements’ as the only candidate for a foundation to ethics. The author maintains that this ‘foundational’ basis – which involves ‘philosophy’ being replaced by ‘theory’, and ‘moral ideals’ being replaced by ‘moral practices’ – is consistent with a view that capitalism is denounced, and communist society defended, by a model of justice combining community with individual self-realisation.

In Chapter 6, ‘Marx as a Critic of Liberalism’, Sean Sayers seeks to rescue Marx from recent attempts to assimilate him to some variety of liberalism. Marx’s historical approach, and his intellectual debts to Hegel, are portrayed as incompatible with liberal talk of ‘universal moral principles’ and ‘timeless principles of right’. Marx’s account of ethical norms roots them rather in concrete social practices, and turns social criticism into a kind of immanent critique. In his discussion of justice and rights, Sayers plausibly argues that communist society does not reject these ‘norms’ altogether, but rather transcends their bourgeois limitations in order better to fulfil them. Sayers helpfully confronts the issue of relativism raised by his historicised reading of Marx. He surveys some putative Marxist explanations of why we should nonetheless prefer communist norms to their competitors (including those utilising the idea of a ‘universal’ class), but, recognising the many difficulties here, wisely resists fully endorsing any of these candidate solutions.

In Chapter 7, ‘Marx, Modernity, and Human Rights’, Bob Cannon plausibly suggests that Marx’s own views on human rights are more complex than often appreciated, and that Marxists are typically too quick to see such rights as a merely bourgeois phenomenon. More controversially, Cannon suggests that Marx’s regrettable failure to provide an explicitly ethical critique of capitalism can be made good using the modern non ‘essentialist’ conception of freedom (based on ‘ethical self-determination’) which appears covertly in Marx’s critique of capitalism (in the idea of ‘self-objectifying labour’). The author recommends that Marxists liberate this conception of freedom from that restricted context, and embrace its critical potential in the form of human rights. On this account, capitalism is not identical with modernity, and can be criticised for its ‘capacity to usurp, preclude and violate the modern right to self-determination’.

In Chapter 8, ‘Last of the Schoolmen. Natural law and Social Justice in Karl Marx’, George E. McCarthy surveys Marx’s account of social justice (understood expansively to cover moral, ethical, political, and economic issues), using evidence from a broad chronological range of his writings. The title alludes to Richard Tawney’s characterisation, in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, of Marx as the last of the medieval natural law theorists. McCarthy suggests that Marx’s thought is best understood, not in a post-Enlightenment context, but rather in relation to ancient and medieval traditions of Aristotelianism. Marx’s social and economic theory combines a modernised version of Aristotle’s critique of chrematistics and defence of democratic political community, together with a secular revision of the medieval natural law account of social justice. German idealism doesn’t disappear entirely from this narrative, but now plays a secondary role, filtering (and complicating) Marx’s more fundamental intellectual debts to ancient and medieval authors.

Part Three, entitled ‘Towards a Theory of Marxist Ethics’, contains five chapters.

In Chapter 9, ‘Philosophical Foundations for a Marxian Ethics’, Michael J. Thompson portrays Marx as deriving his ethical judgements from a broadly teleological or purposive account of social structures. Marx’s ethical perspective is ‘objectivist’, and its normative judgements are grounded in claims about the ‘functional and processual’ nature of social facts. The resulting framework is broadly perfectionist, promoting the full development of human powers and capacities through the ‘optimal organisation of social relations’, and is said to embody ‘a dialectical unity’ between ‘epistemic, factual or scientific statements’ on the one hand, and ‘normative-evaluative statements’ on the other. A Marxian social ontology here provides a secure basis for a critical theory of society; in particular, making possible defensible judgements about the failure of modernity, in its capitalist form, to secure human flourishing (as a result of its social pathologies of alienation and unfreedom).

In Chapter 10, ‘Political Economy with perfectionist Premises. Three Types of Criticism in Marx’, Christoph Henning insists that Marx’s theories are not ethical in character, but constitute something closer to Weberian value-free science. The normative premises and goals which can, of course, be found in Marx’s writings are said to reflect, not his ‘value free social theory’ but his ‘morally laden praxis’. The former generates ‘explanatory criticism’ (assessing theories according to the best available empirical evidence). The latter generates two ‘extra-theoretical’ types of critique: ‘naturalistic criticism’, whose notion of the good is based on the ‘all round development of human capabilities’; and ‘radical individualist criticism’, which understands self-realisation as necessarily by as well as of the self. This way of conceptualising Marx’s work purportedly makes sense of his non-moral remarks about morality (as ideological, for instance), without embroiling him further in problems of relativism.

In Chapter 11, ‘G.A. Cohen and the Limits of Analytical Marxism’, Paul Blackledge’s critical target is not Marx but the renegades and reformists who fail to understand him properly. He portrays G.A. Cohen’s intellectual evolution as reprising a famous episode from the history of Marxism – in which Karl Kautsky’s ‘positivism’ provoked Eduard Bernstein’s subsequent ‘ethical turn’ – but with Cohen playing both parts. With this organisational conceit in place, Blackledge presents an extensive litany of sins to justify the expulsion of Cohen, and perhaps analytical Marxism more generally, from the authentic revolutionary tradition (initiated by Marx and reinvigorated by a Hegel-inspired Lenin). A full list of Cohen’s purported heresies would test my word limit, but they include: a ‘positivist’ reading of both ‘contemporary socio-historical trends’ and Marx’s view of science; a ‘political fatalism’; an orientation towards the academy not ‘workers or socialist activists’; an insufficiently historical view of human agency; a misunderstanding of the nature of class and contemporary class politics; and a failure to appreciate that the ‘obstetric metaphor’ is a metaphor. I am no impartial commentator here, and tastes do vary, but this struck me as an unsympathetic and unpersuasive piece which cohered uncertainly with the central themes of this collection (on which Blackledge has written interestingly elsewhere).

In Chapter 12, ‘On the Ethical Contours of Thin Aristotelian Marxism’, Ruth Groff portrays Marx’s writings not as ‘non-moral’ or ‘anti-moral’, but rather as embodying a distinctive ethics with a thin Aristotelian core. Groff starts from some of the explanatory categories used in Capital (value, variable capital, and the fetishism of commodities), portraying them as both descriptive and evaluative, and their normative stance as Aristotelian (the good for human beings is to realise our human ‘capacity for creativity or freedom’). The ‘moral infrastructure’ that Marx’s work contains is slight in that it might be elaborated, and added to, in a variety of (not necessarily Aristotelian) ways. (I assume that it needs to be added to because, that we can choose something ‘authentically’ does not yet give us a reason to chose that particular thing.) Indeed, Groff interestingly suggests that versions of utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Platonism, might all cohere with the ethical core of Capital, leaving the ‘thin Aristotelian Marxist’ with much work to do, and many decisions to make, if they are to develop a ‘full blown moral theory’

In Chapter 13, ‘The Ethical Implications of Marx’s Concept of a Post-Capitalist Society’, Peter Hudis rightly affirms that it does not follow from Marx’s hostility to utopian plans and blueprints, that he has nothing to say about post-capitalist society. Indeed, Hudis plausibly suggests that Marx says much more about such a society than is usually thought. Clues can be found, not least, in his criticisms of other radicals, and arising from his understanding of alternatives to capitalism as already latent within that evolving society. Hudis unpacks some of this post-capitalist content from Capital, including: the future abolition of value and exchange value, the ‘freely constituted’ character of socialist social relations, and the direct nature of socialist production, distribution, and consumption. Aristotle also makes another welcome appearance; the higher stage of communism in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme is said to echo the structure of perfected friendship in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Finally, and to conclude on a mundane note, this volume as a whole confirms that being priced extravagantly is no guarantee that a book will be adequately proofread.

11 August 2015

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