Paul Blackledge, Marxism and Ethics: Freedom, Desire, and Revolution (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012).

Ethics and History

If anything sets Marx apart from his predecessors in the field of ethics it would be his reluctance to moralize in the face of systemic social inequality. In the shadow of Kant and Hegel, Marx knew ethics to be a major product and bulwark of idealism. He tended to offer only abstract categorical claims about “humanity”—for instance, in descriptions of humans as metabolic organisms that must shape the external world on which they depend for survival—a situation that class structures aggravate. Only with communism, his work implies, could a true ethics be known and established, and much conflict and labor will precede and shape that epoch. As Paul Blackledge explains in this book, “Against the reified abstractions of bourgeois social theory, Marx recognized [that] when workers came together to resist their exploitation they began to realize a new form of humanity, which in turn created the basis from which the social world could be conceived as a changeable product of their labour.” In the blunt language of The German Ideology, “We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

Marx’s perspective implied confidence in socialized humanity, unified and tempered by class-conscious political struggle. If there is a good dose of agnosticism here, so much the better. Marx assumed that the work of communism lay with the proletariat and that its achievement was not to be found in the past or present. Many of the characteristics of the world to come were to be debated, implemented, and modified at that time rather than prognosticated prematurely by theorists (Marx included) whose contributions were, precisely as theory, necessarily delimited. Most important, perhaps, Marx’s refusal to predict or prescribe indicates that he could historicize his own work by recognizing its contingency. Marx did not delineate a communist humanity; engrossed in historical and contemporary research, he prepared Capital. Suspicious of “thinking that is isolated from practice,” he would contend that philosophizing about human essences or capacities that precedes the actual overthrow of capitalism must be treated as provisional and pragmatic—not transcendental.

Blackledge’s purpose is to dispel persistent misconceptions about Marxism’s alleged incapacity to address issues of freedom, justice, and intrinsic human value. The book, a solid albeit highly selective work of intellectual history, is organized into five chapters that proceed chronologically: from Marx himself to the Second and Third Internationals, and from the Post-War malaise to the work of moral philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, who was for a time affiliated with both the Socialist Labour League and International Socialism and about whom Blackledge has written a good deal. Of greater interest, however, is the (lesser) attention paid to Lenin. Lenin, writes Blackledge, not only “shared with Marx a commitment to an ethics of freedom which points toward a compelling ethical critique of capitalism” but also elaborated the argument (not always explicitly laid out in Marx’s writings) that human agency, not “objective” forces or conditions, drives revolutionary change.

Other prominent theorists of the 20th century—all of them, inexplicably, European (no Fanon, no Mao)—occupy a place alongside him. For Blackledge, the best of them properly articulated a dialectical understanding of the dynamic between subjectivity and historical constraints. Blackledge seeks to “reconstruct an ethical Marxist politics that builds upon the contributions of Lenin, Lukács, Gramsci, and others” toward “a positive model of revolutionary socialist politics that escapes the related charges of nihilism and statism.” By these terms Blackledge means, respectively: 1) an existentialist rejection of traditional moral parameters toward a totally new society (i.e., a Nietzschean “leap” into the future); and 2) a subsumption of human agency within a state that advances socialism bureau-technocratically through an advancing means of production (e.g., industrialization) but with insufficient regard for the producers’ own intellectual or political efforts.

Lenin rejected similarly mechanistic currents when Second International figures like Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, complacent with the growing socio-economic strength of the reformist (and ultimately pro-war) SPD, saw socialism as inevitable. A gradualist trade union politics, Lenin reckoned, could be easily pacified and mobilized behind nationalism, and “it was because Lenin was unsure about the future that he acted with the intention of influencing the course of history” by revolutionizing the working classes, the real agents of contemporary historical change fueled by a totalized understanding of capitalism. Writing in the milieu of the New Left, Alisdair MacIntyre also rejected what he considered the teleological presumptions of “Stalinist” socialism, and he too sought the immanent communal (thus moral) force of the working classes. In their collective transformation of the material world through labor lay the promise for entirely new and better futures. MacIntyre held that labor “necessarily has an ethical dimension,” Blackledge explains, “and because it acts as the key medium between the universal and the specific in human history it provides a powerful basis from which to criticize both abstract universalist and simple historicist [i.e., relativist] ethics.”

And yet, if there is a limitation to Marxism and Ethics, it might be (notwithstanding its awareness of the need to demystify all “abstract universalist” idealities) its general reliance on a deeply compromised philosophical tradition that goes largely unhistoricized. Neglecting MacIntyre’s enticing reference to ethics as a “form of alienation,” Blackledge omits to negate the negation—to suspend the very category of ethics, understood as a powerful form of ruling class ideology. It could therefore be argued that, by operating within such a formal academic discourse, and by placing such emphasis on a philosopher whose “contribution to the renewal of revolutionary Marxism … eventually floundered,” Blackledge’s analysis is hamstrung. From the long historical perspective ethics can be seen as European elites’ set of solutions to a problem generated by elites. By any rigorous Marxist standard the famous European exemplars of “ethical” thought are scandalous. What can be said of the Athenians or of those rationalists whose liberal ideals were not extended to the human slaves on whom they depended?

The patrician—whether Aristotle or Aquinas or Jefferson—whose culture relies upon the exploitation of laboring people is not in any position either to posit a human moral “deficit,” to reify moralistic concepts, or to offer supposed solutions to so-called moral problems. Besides, the divisions of labor and the related inequities of class not only enable the intellectual work that we call philosophy; they also tend to displace the ethical burden upon the abused and degraded. Only the lower orders, constrained by their labor (or lack thereof), must make the daily choice between life and law. Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral. Only the hungry need “steal.” Only the homeless need “trespass.” Indeed, English enclosures and other methods of cutting people from the means of subsistence were a precondition of capitalism. Destroying the English commons in order to create the “vagrant” provided the essential conditions for the wage-laborer—who has no recourse.

Marx understood this “ethical” aspect of capitalism (while leaving it for a rather straightforwardly historical appendix of Capital). The wage-laborer is not really “free” to make a contract with his employer, for within capitalist social relations his physical reproduction is dependent on earning wages, his labor fully commodified. Without idealizing or celebrating earlier social formations, Marx made clear that the move from feudalism to capitalism was not truly liberating. Central to the power of capitalism is its ability to locate, engineer, and exploit new relations of domination in order to seize surpluses. Indirectly coercive, the wage contract does not merely realize post-feudal ruling-class ideas but legitimizes new hierarchies. Whereas the feudal lord exercises his inherited power over the bondsman who is obligated to produce for him, liberal elites define themselves against their predecessors’ debasement of “Man,” who must be understood to possess natural rights. The wage contract, however, is only an advance on earlier forms of domination whose violence (e.g., the corvée) was hard to obfuscate. “Only in capitalism,” Ellen Meiksins Wood observes, “is the dominant mode of surplus appropriation based on the dispossession of the direct producers whose surplus labor is appropriated by purely ‘economic’ means.”

Besides the tacit fraud of the wage, the inherent violence of capitalism has another ethical consequence, which a book like Blackledge’s ought to explore. Capitalism initiates and perpetuates a total assault on the requisite collaboration and comradeship among laborers by imposing unique modes of intense competition and vulnerability. We must consider, therefore, the social characteristics that Lenin and MacIntyre saw emergent within the proletariat as the revitalization of a sociality that had been deliberately squelched. For MacIntyre, Blackledge explains, the proletariat will “realize that solidarity is not simply a useful means through which they struggle to meet their needs, but is in fact what they naturally desire.” Of course, the human collective has deeper origins than the proletariat, which must relearn that solidarity is not just “useful” and “desirable” but also constitutive, thus historicizing its own predicament relative to earlier expressions of interdependence. Like good farmland, solidarity is something vital of which the working classes are dispossessed—and then comes their exclusion from the dominant historical narrative. Elites—Athenian, feudal, capitalist—brutally compel working people into conditions of scarcity and antagonism while some of the leisured beneficiaries ponder the inconsistencies of “human” behavior and scribble furiously.

Reviewed by Carl Grey Martin
Norwich University
Northfield, Vermont


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