Society and Right in the Morality of the Communist Manifesto:

Milton Fisk, February 2008

The theme of economic crisis is important for Marx and bears directly on the charge, made most ably by Stephen Lukes in his 1985 book Marxism and Morality, that Marx’s stance on morality suffers from ambiguity. In the first section of Marx and Engel’s Manifesto, there are a number of references to society being plunged into momentary barbarism by economic crises. They claim that, “Society can no longer live under the bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.” Marx went on in the 1850s and 1860s to develop his economic theory of capitalism’s tendency toward crisis. All of this warranted Engels’ famous counterpoint: Socialism or barbarism!

Socialism has its task cut out for it, which is nothing less than the rescue of society, the rescue of what in “On the Jewish Question” Marx called “species-life.” The Manifesto points to prerequisites for this rescue. One is “winning the battle of democracy,” and another is that “the free development of each [be] the condition for the free development of all.” Later, in Gotha, Marx adds a principle of justice to the list of prerequisites: “From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs.” Not respecting these principles will give capitalism a last gasp before society, as a field of mutually advantageous interaction, simply collapses.

Democracy, freedom, and justice are conditions for maintaining society and avoiding barbarism as capitalism perishes. Nonetheless, and here comes the opening for the charge of ambiguity made by Lukes among others, Marx and Engels claim in the Manifesto that Communism “abolishes eternal truths [such as Freedom and Justice] and all morality, instead of constituting [it] on a new basis.” How can they have it both ways? For them morality (die Moral) was a tainted concept. It meant rules that, though ostensibly universal, contained implicit escape clauses to avoid harm to the powerful. To put morality on “a new basis” would merely change one powerful group for another as the beneficiary of new escape clauses. Thus making the Soviet officialdom the new basis for escape clauses from democracy would not make morality more palatable than when the capitalist class preached democracy in order to avoid it.

But let us suppose a different concept of morality, one for which principles are shorn of escape clauses for the powerful. It is then of interest to ask whether Marx’s principles of democracy, freedom, and equality are moral norms. What would qualify them as moral? Their moral character derives from their role in the defense, not of a special segment of society, but of society itself against collapse. A Marxian struggle for democracy, freedom, and equality – without escape clauses for special groups – will involve saving society by purging it of the capitalist mode of production. The class struggle is then “moralized” not by its being for a class but for social viability.

Does this mean that Marx takes rights seriously? Professor Lukes raises this question and suggests that Marx does not take rights seriously enough, that is, seriously enough to prevent his followers from creating gulags. This response leaves out an alternative in dealing with rights that has a greater claim to clarifying issues in political morality than the view Professor Lukes adopts.

Lukes traces rights to fights between people over scarce resources. To protect themselves in these fights they devise a system of rights, which limit the degree to which they can trespass on one another. Here rights are protections of individuals. The question is then: Which protections are to be genuine rights? Should society protect my fortune while you starve? Should society protect my desire for your wife against your selfishness in not wanting to share her? Clearly we need to go beyond the amorphous protection in fights in deciding how far rights are to go in defending ourselves.

Rights call for more than individuals and their need for protection, as Marx pointed out in criticizing the so-called “rights of man” in “On the Jewish Question.” His view and mine as well is that rights aim at protecting the society, “species-life.” In a viable society, members cooperate to their mutual advantage. Yet capitalism’s economic crises lead toward collapse – to a breakdown of mutually rewarding human interaction. To avoid such a collapse, one needs what Marx called “rights of the citizen.” (Here he does not intend to limit “citizen” to the state.) In short, one cannot make sense of rights if one’s perspective is that of the individual in isolation. Rights become imperative in order to protect society and as a result the individual in it.

What happens here to the primacy of class? Marx does of course emphasize class, but he focuses on class only in the context of society. Class disrupts society, and we are to abolish it to save society. One must abolish the not-so-hidden injuries of class – poverty, exploitation, tyranny – to protect something broader – the intercourse among people that rewards them all. To change society from its suicidal course, we have to guarantee the right to freedom, equality, and democracy, without escape clauses for a powerful group.

Emphasizing the Romantic element in Marx, Professor Lukes focuses on human liberation as Marx’s aim. However, Marx fits his Romantic impulse within a concern for social survival. I agree with Professor Lukes that Marx’s Romantic focus on liberation from alienation does not force him to take rights seriously. Once though Marx views liberation from alienation and exploitation as a precondition for saving society, he takes liberation from alienation seriously as a right.

These differences over whether Marx’s commitment to rights is ambiguous are, at root, differences over basic moral theory. My view is that the bases of rights are goals. Lukes is saying that making goals prior to rights allows anything, even the horrors of Stalinist dictatorship. My response, as hinted above, is twofold.

First, the bases of rights are goals, but not just any goals. John Stuart Mill said, 15 years after the Manifesto, that society is the ultimate sanction of morality. We must measure goals other than social viability against their tendency to promote it. Likewise, we must measure claims about rights by their tendency to promote social viability, and not conversely. In their turn, moral standards become a useful check on our actions and institutions. Failing this check is a warning that going ahead could weaken society. The Stalinist effort in Soviet Russia could not pass the moral test, suggesting that the society was on its way to collapse, which indeed it was.

Second, a moral theory that asserts the primacy of rights inevitably cheats. That is, such a theory appeals to something else as primary. To mention contemporary examples, John Rawls’ vaunted primacy of the right over the good starts within the context in which society as a cooperative project mutually advantageous to all is the thing to be protected by rights and justice. Tim Scanlon’s fundamental right of others to have us act on principles they could agree with suffers the same fate. For, those principles must, he says, “serve as the basis of mutual recognition and accommodation,” or more straightforwardly, as the basis for a viable society.