Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3.: Marx and Eugène Sue - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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3.: Marx and Eugène Sue - H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed 
The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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© 1962 by H. B. Acton. The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by H.B. Acton’s estate. It is reproduced here by permission and may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.
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Marx and Eugène Sue
In 1842–43 the Journal des Débats published in daily installments Eugène Sue’s novel The Mysteries of Paris. It was then published in book form and widely read throughout Europe. It is an extraordinary mixture of melodrama, moralizing, and social criticism. The main plot concerns the efforts of Rodolphe, Prince of Geroldstein, to rectify by his own efforts some of the wrongs of modern society that were to be found in the life of Paris. Fleur-de-Marie, a pure-hearted young waif (who is subsequently discovered to be Rodolphe’s daughter) is rescued from her miserable life among Parisian criminals, becomes conscious of sinfulness, repents, and dies after having been admitted to a convent and made its abbess. Le Chourineur (the Ripper), a simple-minded assassin whose crimes are due to poverty and misfortune rather than to an evil nature, is reclaimed by Rodolphe and gratefully saves his life. Le Maître d’Ecole (the Schoolmaster), a criminal who appears to be quite beyond reclamation, is blinded by the orders of Prince Rodolphe so that he may not be able to injure others any more and will also be forced to meditate on his crimes and perhaps repent of them. In the course of the many loosely knit episodes of which the story is composed, Sue describes the miseries of the poor and the callousness of the rich. He proclaims that much crime is due to poverty, that the poor are much less blameworthy for their crimes than the rich are for theirs, and that it is much more difficult for the uneducated poor to obtain justice than for the educated and well-to-do. Incidents in this and others of his novels are used by Sue to show the need for social reforms. Thus, he considers that the death penalty should be abolished, but that blinding might be the supreme penalty for particularly atrocious crimes. He also advocates the establishment of farms where ex-convicts could work and re-establish themselves in society. Regeneration, however, on his view, could only occur as the result of genuine repentance which, therefore, should be the chief end of punishment. In discussing the social evils of unemployment, he proposes the establishment of a People’s Bank to give help to men who are unavoidably out of work. He also sketched a scheme for pawnshops which would lend money without interest to respectable artisans. He holds that women were unjustly treated by the Civil Code, and that they should have the right to keep their own property and to obtain divorce. It should be mentioned that Sue took pains to give an accurate account of life in prisons and among the very poor. He later wrote The Wandering Jew and other “social novels,” and in 1850 was elected to the National Assembly as a deputy of the extreme left. Although Louis Napoleon, on the ground that he was a distant relation of his, struck Sue’s name from the list of his opponents who were to be imprisoned and exiled, Sue refused this privilege and insisted on accepting these penalties along with the rest of the protesting deputies. Under the influence of Sue there was founded in 1843 a periodical called La Ruche Populaire (“The People’s Beehive”). This was edited by artisans, and had at the head of the first issue the following quotation from the Mysteries of Paris: “It is good to give help to honest and unfortunate men who cry out for it. But it is better to find out about those who are carrying on the struggle with honor and energy, to go to their aid, sometimes without their knowing it . . . and to ward off betimes both poverty and the temptations that lead to crime.” Sue was accused by some of “disguising communism under entertaining forms,” by others he was praised for drawing the attention of the prosperous classes to the misery which they tried to ignore.14
Now in 1843 Bruno Bauer, a leading figure among the “Young Hegelians,” had founded at Charlottenburg a periodical called Die Allgemeine Literaturzeitung. A young man called Szeliga (who later had a reasonably successful career in the Prussian army) discussed in this periodical certain of the social ideas of the Mysteries of Paris. He took Sue very seriously, and sought to give his views the sanction of the Hegelian philosophy. Marx and Engels’ Holy Family, published in 1845, was intended as a general attack on the ideas of Bruno Bauer and his supporters as developed in the Allgemeine Literaturzeitung. Two long chapters of the book, written by Marx himself, are given over to criticizing Szeliga for taking Sue so seriously, and to a destructive analysis of the moral and social ideals recommended in the Mysteries of Paris. It is thus possible to obtain from these chapters a pretty good idea of Marx’s moral outlook at the time when his social theories were being developed. In my view they throw considerable light on some important aspects of Marx’s ethics.
Marx considers that the “conversion” of le Chourineur by Prince Rodolphe transforms him into a stool-pigeon and then into a faithful bulldog. “He is no longer even an ordinary bulldog, he is a moral bulldog.”15 Similarly he considers that Rodolphe, in “rescuing” Fleur-de-Marie, has changed her from a girl capable of happiness “first into a repentant sinner, then the repentant sinner into a nun, and then the nun into a corpse.”16 So too, in blinding the Maître d’Ecole, Rodolphe has, according to Marx, acted in the true Christian fashion according to which “it is necessary to kill human nature to cure it of its diseases.”17 Again, Rodolphe deplores the fact that maid-servants may be seduced by their masters and driven by them into crime, but “he does not understand the general condition of women in modern society, he does not regard it as inhuman. Absolutely faithful to his old theory, he merely deplores the absence of a law to punish the seducer and to associate terrible punishments with repentance and expiation.”18 Marx’s general comment on the ethics of Rodolphe’s conduct is as follows: “The magic means by which Rodolphe works all his rescues and all his marvelous cures, are not his beautiful words, but his money. This is what moralists are like, says Fourier. You must be a millionaire in order to imitate their heroes. Morality is impotence in action. Whenever it attacks a vice, morality is worsted. And Rodolphe does not even rise to the point of view of independent morality, which rests on consciousness of human dignity. On the contrary, his morality rests on consciousness of human frailty. It embodies moral theology.”19 And in conclusion Marx argues that even Rodolphe’s morality is a sham, since his activities in Paris, though they have righting the wrong as their ostensible aim, are really a means of gratifying himself by playing the role of Providence. His moral hatred of wrong is a hypocritical cover for his personal hatred of individuals.20
Is all this an attack on morality as such, or is it merely an attack on what Marx considers to be false morality? It certainly looks as if Marx is both attacking morality as such and as a whole (“Morality is impotence in action”), and is also attacking false morality. (“. . . Rodolphe does not even rise to the point of view of independent morality, which rests on consciousness of human dignity.”) If this is what he is doing, then he is inconsistent. For false morality can only be criticized in the light of a morality held to be less false, whereas if all morality is rejected, this must be in favor of something that is not morality and that does not allow that the drawing of moral distinctions is a legitimate activity. Marx seems to be saying the following four things: (a) that it is bad for criminals to be cowed and rendered less than human by means of punishment, repentance, and remorse; (b) that those who advocate punishment and urge repentance do so out of revenge, hypocritically; (c) that punishment, repentance, and remorse, even if aided by reforms of the penal laws and by measures enabling the poor to help themselves, can never reach and destroy the roots of crime; (d) and that the moral approach to crime is powerless to check it. His comments on Sue’s novel show that he thinks there is something in human nature that should be preserved and is in fact destroyed by punishment and repentance. But it is not altogether clear what Marx thinks is wrong about them. Le Chourineur, from being a man, though a rough and dangerous one, repents and becomes, in Marx’s opinion, a mere “moral bulldog.” What, then, is bad about this new condition? Is it that le Chourineur has lost his pride and independence and now wishes only to be an obsequious hanger-on of Prince Rodolphe? If this is so, then perhaps Marx’s objection is not to repentance as such, but to false repentance, and not to punishment as such, but to the punishment that breaks a man’s spirit. Again, is it Marx’s view that all those who support the punishment of criminals are really doing nothing but find outlets for their own resentments or support for their own interests? Is all justice hypocritical?
Now Marx clearly has an ideal of what it is to live a truly human life. Fawning upon rich benefactors is not a part of this ideal, nor is dwelling on one’s personal guilt or renouncing the world in a nunnery. Someone lives a truly human life if he exercises his native abilities, enjoys nature and human society, and maintains a decent independence in relation to other men. In so far as punishment cripples the criminal, takes away his independence, and makes him obsequious, it has, according to Marx, done harm rather than good. It will be objected, however, that the criminal has ignored the rights of other people and can therefore hardly lay claim to remain unharmed by them. In an article he wrote in the New York Times in 185321 Marx considered this reply in the form given to it by Kant and Hegel, viz., that the criminal, in denying the rights of someone else, calls down upon himself the denial of his own rights by other people, so that his punishment is a fitting retort to his own deed. Marx admits that this view has the merit of regarding the criminal as a being who is worthy of respect, but he argues that the whole conception is dangerously abstract. For it takes account only of the free-will of the criminal and the violation of rights in general, but ignores the fact that the criminal is a concrete human being with particular motives and temptations living in a society organized in a specific manner. The view of Kant and Hegel, he asserts, only dresses up in philosophical language the ancient lex talionis of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. And he concludes: “Punishment, at bottom, is nothing but society’s defence of itself against all violations of its conditions of existence. How unhappy is a society that has no other means of defending itself except the executioner.” But these comments in the New York Times do not reveal all of Marx’s mind on the subject. For from the passages I have quoted from the Holy Family it is clear that Marx thought that punishment was bad because the societies that inflicted it were bad. If a society is so organized that independent and courageous men are driven to crime, or if in the society acts are prohibited that are necessary for the proper development of human nature, then when the society in question “defends itself” by the punishment of criminals, its professions of justice are hypocritical. They are hypocritical, in Marx’s view, for two reasons: in the first place, because the criminals are either unusually independent men or helpless victims and therefore are in neither case deserving of punishment; in the second place, because the just course would be to change the society instead of forcing men into crime and then punishing them for what they could not help.
If I have interpreted Marx correctly, it would appear that no one, on his view, would commit a crime unless he was an unusually vigorous man pent in by bad laws, or a feeble man in the grip of bad social circumstances. He does not, in the passages I have referred to, consider the possibility that someone might deliberately violate the rights of another. The only wrongdoing that he appears to admit might be freely willed without excuse is the hypocritical ardor to punish the unfortunate. In so far as his admiration is for vigor and power, it is for something that certainly does command admiration, though the admiration is not for anything moral in it. Power or vigor is admired, as in a tiger, for the beauty or economy of its exercise, but is not a feature of human beings that necessarily commands moral approval. In any case, a man who admires power and vigor to the extent of even commending it in a man who breaks the chains of law, is hardly consistent in excusing these feeble criminals who are the victims of social circumstance. If power is good, then feebleness is bad, and if feebleness is excused, then it may be necessary to condemn power. Furthermore, even though a society is bad, it may nevertheless be better to punish and prevent certain violations of right such as murder that take place within it, than to allow the wrongdoer to go scot-free, however physically admirable or abjectly excusable he may be. The right to life and to personal property may be defended in a society that is in many other respects a bad one. Many of those in it who defend these rights may, by these very actions, be defending much else that ought not to be, such as exploitation of man by man. Is it wrong, then, to protect the genuine rights because other rights are violated? Ought those who support law and order in this society always to suffer the pangs of a bad conscience? Marx can hardly say “Yes,” because he has ridiculed the idea of remorse and expiation. Marx’s position, it would seem, ought to be that in such a bad society those who support the punishment of wrongdoers ought to work to remove the injustices that lead to wrongdoing—the sincerity of their remorse would be shown by the practical strength of their reforming zeal. But if remorse and repentance are rejected, a good deal of the driving force behind the activities of reformers will have been dissipated.
It is clear that, mixed up in Marx’s moral indignation—a thing which he himself has just described as impotent—is the belief that crime is the outcome of social circumstances, that social circumstances change in accordance with some impersonal impetus, and that in a classless society there would be no crime because there would be no occasions for it. We may see in Marx’s judgments some of the confusion that has beset much of the “progressive” moral thinking of our time. Morality is regarded as somehow inferior to science, and yet the most bitter moral criticisms are directed against industrial and scientific society. Or the “progressive” moralist will prefer one sort of morality, a morality of power and achievement, and will also profess a more than Christian solicitude for the welfare of those who have failed through weakness. He will say that it is “uncivilized” to indulge in moral indignation, and will nevertheless vehemently attack the vice of hypocrisy. But such criticisms as these, however justified they may be, do not take us to the heart of the morality, or moral substitute, that Marx gave to the Marxist movement. In the sections that follow I shall try to get a bit closer to it by considering both the critical and constructive aspects of it in some detail. The attack on morality may be better described, I think, as an attack on “moralism,” and this will be the theme of the next section. This will be followed by a section in which is discussed the Marxist doctrine of how man’s lost unity may be restored. In the section after that I briefly discuss the Marxist theory of the state, since Marx’s condemnation of punishment was at least partly the result of his view that the state which administers punishment is a means by which the dominating class interests are secured.
[14. ]These details are to be found in Eugène Sue et le Roman-Feuilleton, by Nora Atkinson (Paris, 1929). The author does not mention Marx.
[15. ]M.E.G.A., I, 3, p. 342.
[16. ]Ibid., p. 353.
[17. ]Ibid., p. 355.
[18. ]Ibid., p. 373.
[19. ]Ibid., pp. 379–80.
[20. ]Ibid., p. 386.
[21. ]Gesammelte Schriften von Marx und Engels, pp. 80ff. (ed. Riazanov). Translated and quoted in Pages choisies pour une éthique socialiste, ed. Maximilien Rubel, Paris, 1948. M. Rubel’s collection and arrangement is a most valuable contribution to the understanding of Marx’s ethical teaching.