Communism and Morality

I posted a few days back about a couple of things – the metaphysical views taken by class-struggles communists, and the implications of talk about ‘rights’. I thought I’d throw out a few reflections that rather draw the two together.

Marx’n’Engels sometimes described their views as ‘scientific socialism’, which they meant, to quote, “in opposition to utopian socialism, which wants to attach the people to new delusions, instead of limiting its science to the knowledge of the social movement made by the people itself”.

I think this is clearly linked to a noteworthy feature of Marx’n’Co., their general refusal to speak in moral terms. Everything is ‘so-and-so is happening or will happen or must happen’, not ‘so-and-so should happen’.

Now I’ve always disagreed with this part of their approach, which seems to me to amount to stitching up one half of your mouth. But it’s still worth trying to understand. If I had to put words in Marx’s mouth (definitely the first person ever to do that), I’d say the following:

1. Whatever isn’t properly speaking true is false
2. Falsehoods are generally pernicious, and obscure people’s awareness of the truth;
3. (Being aware of the truth is revolutionary in itself);
4. Moral statements aren’t properly speaking true;
5. On the contrary, moral statements are almost always part of ‘ideology’, the tissue of widely shared ideas, which are just true enough to be convincing and just false enough to make a rotten society seem healthy, which are a necessity in any rotten (i.e. class-divided) society, but will be dispensed with in an actually healthy one.
6. Hence moral statements are generally pernicious for revolutionary purposes.

(Perhaps I’ve misunderstood what Marx was intending. Fair enough – I’d be happy to be corrected. But I think this sort of position is still an interesting one to consider, and not uncommon)

Now, you might think that the natural place to disagree would be point 4., which says that moral statements aren’t really true. Isn’t that what’s driving the whole argument? But actually, I think Marx(‘n’Co.) are right there, and their implied opponents, who want to simply change the content of traditional ideology and recommend a new abstract blueprint or a new collection of ‘thous shalts’, are wrong.

What I would actually contest is point 1., that this makes moral statements simple falsehoods. What on earth does that mean, that they’re neither false nor true?

I think the discussion I posted of things like ‘the right to life’ is a good illustration. We could assembles a collection of statements, such as:

People have the right to life;
God’s law prohibits murder;
Natural law prohibits murder;
Killing is a violation of the person;
Killing another person is killing yourself in them;

Are any of these statements really true? I wouldn’t say so: they all draw upon some sort of strange and non-factual sort of worldview, such as one where there are strange objects called ‘rights’, or a set of laws written by some entity called ‘nature’, or where certain entities (persons) have a sort of mystical glow about them. It’s only by being fitted into those non-factual worldviews that the moral claims can come to make sense.

At the same time, they’re not simply false either. There’s clearly something real and true that they’re all trying to convey – it’s not ultimately arbitrary to prefer ‘natural law prohibits murder’ to ‘natural law advises violent struggle for power’ (though some of my readers may disagree).

It’s just that this ‘fact’ can’t really be expressed in any very good conceptual terms – perhaps it could in the isolated shout ‘don’t kill them!’ but to fit into a coherent worldview it needs to avail itself of some level of fiction.

To use a different example, the very idea of ‘moral laws’ is problematic. On the one hand, situations are so complex that no meaningful laws will be able to really prescibe for all of them; it always requires a personal judgement to decide whether holding to the ‘law’ is a good idea. So they’re not really laws – and more to the point, there could be a number of different sets that would be equally good/bad.

On the other hand, ‘lawlessness’ is no good either. Letting everybody loose with no more guidance than ‘do whatever you individually think will have the best results’ is probably a bad idea. ‘Law’ is embodied in experience at the moment when the tactics we must use seem to contradict the end we use them for.

So the upshot again is, there is a realm of facts, of correctness and incorrectness, but they can’t really be expressed without drawing on fictitious or seriously flawed ways of thinking.

Does this mean that communists should go back to making moral claims? I don’t think that’s the right question.
The strongest argument for making moral claims is that largely, factual claims, which supposedly stand distinct from and superior to moral claims, are in a similar boat.

That is, scientifically, historically, sociologically, there are certainly truths and falsehoods, but they don’t come pre-packed in human concepts. In being expressed they always partake of the same sort of process described above – being fitted into a more-or-less nonfactual worldview in order to be made sense of.

Scientifically, for example, we can’t imagine what any sort of material entity is really made of – we can’t make sense of ‘atoms’ or ‘energy’ – except by forming models in our heads of tiny little billiard balls whizzing around, or of waves undulating gently across space. But the idea of a particle, say, as a small hard sphere of ‘matter’, is probably as alien to nature as any other human invention. We can get a good ‘fit’ between our fictions and reality, but they’re still fictions.

This comes out incredibly clearly, of course, in Marxist writings themselves. The worldviews they deploy drip with values. If Marxism was really a ‘value-free’ endeavour, then ‘right-wing Marxists’, researching class-conflicts and so forth, but very worried at the knowledge of inevitable proletarian revolution, and dreading the state of antagonism-free communism, should be welcomed and recognised as such by other Marxists. But they wouldn’t be – they’d be swiftly rejected as going against the whole point of Marxism.

Does any of this matter?

I’d suggest it might. That’s because a value-judgement that presents itself as pure fact is, well, is actually what the general ‘materialist’ ‘criticism of values’ was supposed to do away with. That is – we obviously make value-judgements, so we might as well be open about it and accept that they can be questioned and scrutinised. Conveniently, our position is the morally most respectable, so there’s nothing to fear. 😀

This is particularly true because there a fair few crazies around, and a particular sort of crazy who’s liable to be particularly drawn to things like communism (and, even more, anarchism), and for whom an essentially nihilist set of values can easily find expression in a thirst for !Revolution!, all the more easily if they can do so while also declaiming the emptiness of all values and the absence of morality. Indeed, this kind of semi-apocalyptic personality is probably a more honest expression of the ‘no moral values at all’ posture than any more sensible communist.

It’s probably not possible to drive away all of this sort, but it would probably be useful to make clear that they’re not the only sort around.

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