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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Marxism and morality

by Ray Jones

ONE COMMON attack on Marxism is that it is amoral, that Marxists don’t really have any morals at all. It’s said that they believe that ‘the end justifies the means’ in all circumstances and are quite happy to indulge in the eating of babies if they think it serves their devious purposes.

Marxists take morality very seriously but approach it a scientific way – not from a list of ‘eternal’ does and don’ts handed down from a god or gods.

In a sense no-one can escape morality. Humans could not exist if they did not co-operate to produce their food and shelter, and in so doing, basic codes of conduct are produced, a ‘social consciousness’ is formed. The simpler the society the simpler these rules of behaviour towards each other generally are – and no society has yet been found without them.

As societies change their means of producing the needs and desires of life and become more complex, they develop more complex cultures. Social consciousness takes various forms – eg art, morality, religion, legal – but they remain fundamentally linked to, and the product of, the means and relations of production.

With the development of the means of production comes class societies, where different groups have different relationships to how the necessities of life are produced, who owns them and who controls them. Because of the different relationships, different points of view and behaviour arise, and cultures, to an extent, diverge. Even within the major classes, attitudes can differ and clashes occur, but whilst the means of production remain relatively stable the morality of the society will be under the sway of the dominant class.

In feudal days in Western Europe the Catholic church played the major role in morality, backed by the military system of ownership and governance. But the two did not always see eye to eye, in fact there was more-or-less constant conflict between the theologically influenced ideas of the church and the military priorities of the kings and knights.

For example, the church disapproved of crossbows as weapons that were too nasty and efficient to use against other Christians, and of tournaments because they caused too many unnecessary deaths. On the other hand, knights valued the former because it was an efficient killing machine, and the latter as a training method and a way to increase their incomes. More fundamentally, Pope and kings clashed over which had the ultimate say in this material world.

Eventually one could say that the kings won and the secular forces came out on top, but this was bound up with the rise of capitalism, which was bad news for the kings, and it was far from the end of the love/hate relationship between church and state.

Although morality has been linked to religion for much of history, with the rise of capitalism attempts were again made to separate the two. Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) described the idea that morality came from divine law as “non-sense on stilts” and he and JS Mill, his student, are usually credited with the invention of classical Utilitarianism. Mill said that “...actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”. Happiness being pleasure and the reverse pain.

This theory can be applied to how people should and do behave and has given rise to many interpretations – some of which remain amongst philosophers and the general public today, despite the many problems it raises.

Under 19th century capitalism there were attempts to put it into social practice. With the introduction of Workhouses under the new Poor Law, conditions inside them were deliberately made so dreadful that only those about to starve would choose to go there. People would choose the greater ‘pleasure’ of living on the verge of starvation outside them – and so save the local rate payers (the well-off) a few shillings.

There were of course massive protests and riots, and the conditions were gradually improved. But the Workhouses remained for many years – and the fear and hatred of them amongst the working class longer still.

In our own times, remnants of feudal/aristocratic culture and morality remain entrenched in parts of society: conspicuous consumption, patronising noblesse oblige, the belief in a classical education (for themselves – obviously) and undemocratic views. These interact and conflict with the dominant capitalist ideas of constant reinvestment and increase of profit, charity for the ‘worthy’ poor, education to produce suitable workers and bosses for industry, and limited bourgeois democracy. And with working class beliefs, which is the job of Marxists to support, in fairness, community and an education to ‘get on’, to improve their lives.

But when a means of production breaks down, when the ruling class cannot go on in the old way and the oppressed class will not continue in the old way, a revolutionary leap occurs. Power shifts to a new class and a different dominant culture emerges, which has developed in the bowels of the old.

No culture vanishes overnight but the balance of forces changes decisively. Under socialism, working class feelings for collectiveness and fairness are given greater freedom and old prejudices, which were encouraged by capitalism, reduced. A new and better society can be built.