📙 Marxism, Ethics and Politics
Author: John Gregson
Full Title: Marxism, Ethics and Politics
MacIntyre’s contemporary position is that it is only with the resources provided by Aquinas and Aristotle that we might achieve what Marxism in the end could not and develop an ethical and political challenge and alternative to the standpoint of modernity (albeit in a different form from that envisaged by Marx).
MacIntyre now believes that it is only through some kind of Thomist and Aristotelian-formulated concept of revolutionary practice that something like the type of ethical resistance to the capitalist order that Marx envisaged can be achieved. The task of revolutionary Aristotelianism is to complete Marx’s project.
It is in the complex and wide-ranging analysis and critique of liberal Modernity, its moral philosophy and its institutions that MacIntyre highlights why we need not only Marx , but Aristotle, to develop the kind of resistance to the contemporary order that Marxists strive for.
Firstly: That Marxism, though claiming a distinctive moral standpoint, in practice proves, through its responses to historical events—the critique of Stalin and the events of Hungary 1956—that ‘Marxists have always fallen back into relatively straightforward versions of Kantianism or Utilitarianism
Secondly: Neither Marx , nor Marxists after him, gave any practical conception of how his vision of a community of free individuals was to be constructed.
Thirdly: ‘As Marxists move towards power they tend to become Weberians’.
Fourthly: As a result of the ‘moral impoverishment of advanced capitalism ’ it becomes difficult to assert where exactly those preconditions for a better future are going to come from.
Fifthly: Due to these conditions of moral impoverishment prevalent in Capitalism, ‘Marxism tends to produce its own versions of the Übermensch: Lukács’s ideal proletariat, Lenin’s ideal revolutionary’
The reinforcement of the dominant position in liberal society concerning morality, of individual choice abstracted from the historical process, is perpetuated with this conception of morality. The necessarily isolated position which the adoption of such an individualistic moral position entails serves only to reinforce the established order with an affirmation of its values. The adoption of such a moral position guarantees that there can be no ‘shared moral image’ within society
What emerges as the “essence of human nature” is not egoism, but sociality … “Sociality” as the defining characteristic of human nature is radically different from those criticized by Marx. Unlike “egoism”, it cannot be an abstract quality inherent in the single individual. It can only exist in the relations of individuals with each other.
According to this interpretation of Marx, it is not simply that human’s desire community and sociality it is that ‘sociality’ itself must be an essential component of human nature . Humans cannot, nor ever have, existed without relationships with others in some form or another.
Since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting their nature men create, produce, the human community, the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth. Hence this true community does not come into being through reflection, it appears owing to the need and egoism of individuals, i.e., it is produced directly by their life-activity itself.
Capitalism provides a form of life in which men rediscover Desire in a number of ways. They discover above all what they want most is what they want in common with others; and more than this that a sharing of human life is not just a means to the accomplishment of what they Desire, but that certain ways of sharing human life are what they most Desire.
MacIntyre believes that there is a fundamental clash of Desires between the selfish, individualistic Desires characteristic of capitalism and deeper, human Desires created through the collectivization and solidarity that bind people together within capitalism
What Aristotle provides is a direct challenge and contrast to the Kantian idea that morality and Desire must always be exclusive and competing concepts. MacIntyre states that the Greek conception of the relationship between morality and Desire maintained that ‘the connection between the moral life and the pursuit of what men want is always preserved’
Any liberal conception of morality that insisted on the division between morality and Desire could never solve the moral dilemmas of the modern world as it fundamentally assumed morality and Desire could never be anything else but competitors.
Liberal, prescriptive morality fails to take into account those concepts of practical consciousness that make morality a much more complex, historically and sociologically embedded process. As a result, it fails to provide any kind of concrete guide to action.
In the first chapter of Capital when Marx characterizes what it will be like when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations what he pictures is ‘a community of free individuals’ who have all freely agreed to their common ownership of the means of production and to various norms of production and distribution. This free individual is described by Marx as a socialized Robinson Crusoe; but on what basis he enters into his free association with others Marx does not tell us. At this key point in Marxism there is a lacuna which no later Marxist has adequately supplied.
MacIntyre argued that capitalism potentially provided a ‘form of life’ through which people could ‘rediscover Desire’ in such a way as to discover ‘above all what they want most is what they want in common with others’ (MacIntyre 1959a, p. 95). It was this socialized form of Desire—the Desire to be neither alienated from each other or ones’ self—that could potentially help individuals to discover that what they actually want are new forms of community and radically different social and economic arrangements.
MacIntyre suggests that the ‘question therefore is: are there or might there be types of social structure that would prevent those who inhabited them from understanding themselves as moral agents?’ (MacIntyre 1999a, p. 189) MacIntyre’s answer to this question concentrates on such social structures and their effects, the modern state, market and the ‘peculiarly modern phenomenon’ of compartmentalization (MacIntyre 1999a, p. 196).
Modern society is necessarily fragmented in that a conception of the virtues, of the moral decision-making process, only exists in relation to a particular, compartmentalized social role which bears little or no relation to other roles within society.
MacIntyre suggests that the precepts of the virtues come to be understood as ‘prescriptions for habit-formation in the interests of achieving effectiveness in this or that particular role’ (MacIntyre 1992, p. 117). This is the specifically modern phenomenon of compartmentalization and it is inseparable from modern society.
A key difference between advanced modernity and other cultures, suggests MacIntyre, is the ‘degree and nature of its compartmentalizations ’ (MacIntyre 2016, p. 237). MacIntyre states that ‘each distinct sphere of social activity comes to have its own role structure governed by its own specific norms in relative independence of other such spheres’ (MacIntyre 1999a, p. 197). Compartmentalization means that people cannot effectively assume the position of a moral agent, as such an agent requires practically rational individuals.
All we can do is move from one role to another without externalizing ourselves from those particular roles and making decisions as an individual rather than from the context of a particular social role.
What cannot be provided in modern society is an understanding of one’s self ‘as having a substantive identity independent of their roles’ (MacIntyre 1999a, p. 199). This means we generally cannot possess the required practical reasoning which enables us to set themselves apart from our roles, whichever they may be.
Indeed, many people cannot conceive of themselves as having a potential existence that is external to the social roles that they fulfill. These compartmentalized groups cannot be thought of as practices, as they do not share common conceptions of internal good and virtues from which to form moral judgments. The moral impoverishment of capitalism is such precisely because we are prevented, argues MacIntyre, from becoming the type of rational, moral agents who could begin to question the very rationality of modern capitalism itself.
Nietzsche’s greatness, for MacIntyre, lies in his diagnosis of the modern moral condition. MacIntyre argues that from within the moral wilderness of morality, those that try to think through their moral foundations will find something very much like the Nietzschean ‘will to power’ at the core of those foundations. That is, on Nietzschean terms, it is to discover a moral system characterized essentially by ‘suppressions and repressions’
MacIntyre argues that Marxism becomes voluntarism in an attempt to bridge the gap between objective conditions and revolutionary activity. Voluntarism is an ‘appeal to pure will’ in order to ‘transcend’ such objective conditions and fill the gap between these conditions and the revolutionary cause. Guevara was forced to appeal to the Kantian invocation of duty, repeating the errors of Bernstein and Liebknecht, in an act of doomed ‘moral heroism’ that ultimately failed to find any coherent moral foundations for socialism. The other choice would have been a crude utilitarian appeal to self-interest, argues MacIntyre.
Morality, on MacIntyre’s view, must be understood as the proper satisfaction of our Desires (Knight 2007, p. 105). Yet this is a conception of morality that has been expunged from the modern world.
MacIntyre retains from Marx a strong aversion to the individualism inherent within liberalism , emphatically stating that ‘ever since I understood liberalism, I have wanted nothing to do with it’ (MacIntyre 1994a, p. 43). This rejection is both at the philosophical level and at the political level, the latter which concretises the former in the institutions of modernity. With liberalism , the autonomy of the individual is the very ‘essence’ of morality; the individual is the ‘fount of all value and the locus of all value’ (MacIntyre 1971b, p. 283). Yet liberalism is ideological and rests on a mistake, it fails to recognize its own history which has taken a specific, individualized view of humanity and generalized it to a claim about the universal human condition and the best way for it to flourish. The consequences of the failures of liberalism , both philosophical and practical, have come to be embodied in social life itself (MacIntyre 2007, p. 22). MacIntyre has long taken from Marx the belief that the ‘human essence is no abstraction inherent in every single individual’; his contemporary politics must be understood as resisting and opposing the reified liberal standpoint of civil society.
One of the problems with Marxism from Macintyre’s perspective is not that is too radical, it is that it is not radical enough as it is itself subsumed in the thought and practice of liberal modernity. Only a mode of thought and practice that is utterly opposed to such dominant modern modes of thought and practice, such as the revolutionary Aristotelianism MacIntyre adheres to, can provide adequate moral goods of resistance.
If MacIntyre’s revolutionary Aristotelianism can go beyond Marxism’s failures, then perhaps it can further help to theorize and give expression to the agency and contradictions inherent within the contemporary neoliberal order.
Jameson, F. (1988). Morality Versus Ethical Substance; Or, Aristotelian Marxism in Alasdair MacIntyre. In The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971–1986, Volume One, Situations of Theory (pp. 181–185). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.