Front Page Titles (by Subject) 4.: Marxism and Moralism - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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4.: Marxism and Moralism - 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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Marxism and Moralism
The adjective “moralistic” is today used in spoken English to express criticism of exaggerated or misplaced moral judgments. For example, someone may be said to have a moralistic attitude toward crime if he is more concerned with the guilt of the criminals than with ways and means of stopping crimes from being committed. More generally, the noun “moralism” is used for an exaggerated or misplaced zeal for conventional moral rules. In chapter 25 of the Categorical Imperative Professor Paton says that his defense of the Kantian moral theory may be criticized by some people as “the product of moralistic prejudice” (p. 264), and it is clear from the context that a moralistic prejudice is one that results from an excessive emphasis on moral considerations. In the New Yorker for 26 September 1953 there is a criticism of a play based on the murder for which Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were hanged. The critic mentions the theory that Mrs. Thompson’s letters describing her own unsuccessful attempts to murder her husband were romantic imaginations, and writes that this hypothesis was “too much for a literal-minded and moralistic judge and jury.” Here the force of the adjective “moralistic” seems to be that the judge’s and the jury’s moral disapproval of Mrs. Thompson’s adultery prejudiced them against recognizing an important possibility. Perhaps there is also the suggestion that the judge and jury overestimated the badness of adultery. Again, in a leading article in the London Times of 28 October 1953, it is stated that those who wish for the general recognition of the Chinese government by other governments do not base their contention on the “moralistic conception” that recognition is a “moral benediction.” Here too the word “moralistic,” and the phrase “moral benediction” are used somewhat pejoratively to disclaim any fanatical concern with the making of moral judgments. The adjective “moralistic” and the noun “moralism” are, then, used to indicate and depreciate the exaggeration of morality itself, or the exaggeration of those parts of morality that are concerned with the reprobation of guilt. It is easy to see, therefore, that when Marx appears to be attacking morality, he may really be intending to attack moralism.
Now in the parts of the Holy Family in which he discusses the Mysteries of Paris Marx more than once refers approvingly to Fourier’s criticisms of capitalist morality, and it is interesting to notice that “moralism” was one of the things that Fourier had attacked. According to Fourier there are four “false and deceptive sciences,” and to these he gives the names “moralism,” “politics,” “economism,” and “metaphysics.” (The analogy with the theory of ideologies is striking.) Moralism was the term used by Fourier for what he regarded as the pre-scientific repressive methods of controlling the passions of mankind. It was his view that the passions should not be suppressed, but first studied, and then utilized. (A well-known example of this view of his is the scheme by which scavenging, an occupation that disgusts most grown-up people, should be undertaken by children, who enjoy playing with mud and dirt.) An objective study of contemporary society would show, he believed, that it was riddled with falsehood and hypocrisy; that what was thought to be repression of the animal desires was really a diverting of them from real to imaginary satisfactions; that men were cheated by appeals to their patriotism into sacrificing their lives for other men who were in search of commercial gain; that women were robbed of happiness by being educated to ideals of chastity; that reformers who persuaded governments to suppress social evils such as slavery were misled by the “philanthropic illusion” that mere repression was sufficient to stop evils that were rooted in human nature. Fourier thought that moralism was a lazy creed, resulting from an unwillingness to study and understand the workings of the passions. When Marx said that morality was “impotence in action” (he actually used the French phrase impuissance mise en action), he was no doubt thinking of Fourier’s view that moralists take the lazy, quasi-magical course of forbidding and suppressing crime instead of the patient, scientific course of understanding its motives and redirecting them to the social good (“harmonizing” was one of Fourier’s favorite expressions). “Moralism,” then, in Fourier’s system, was the name given to the complex of practices and attitudes in which (1) the part to be played by scientific understanding in improving the lot of man was ignored, in which (2) the human passions were to be suppressed instead of utilized for the common good, and in which (3) the inevitable failure of suppression and repression was followed by concealments and hypocrisies. The current senses of “moralistic” that I have just mentioned agree well enough with this conception. The critics of Kantian moral philosophy mentioned by Professor Paton think that Kant gave too much weight, in his analysis of morality, to the influence of moral reason as compared with men’s passions and self-interest. The writer in the New Yorker thought that the judge and jury were insufficiently informed of the realities of human passion, and were therefore hasty in their judgment of Mrs. Thompson. The writer in the Times thought that indignation at Chinese intransigence might lead governments to be concerned with punishment when they should be concerned with future good.
It seems to me that a fundamental feature of the attack on moralism is the idea that blaming social evils, or preaching against them, or suppressing them, are inadequate ways of dealing with them, and should at any rate be preceded, if not replaced, by an understanding of them. Marx put this very clearly in a review he wrote for the Gesellschaftsspiegel of a French book about suicide. “Man,” he wrote, “seems a mystery to man: one knows only how to blame him, there is no knowledge of him.”22 This is a view that is very easily confused with the idea that morality should be abandoned in favor of a science that is at the same time a transformation of the social world. I have already discussed this more general and radical idea, so that it is sufficient now to say something about the somewhat less radical one that I have just described. And in the first place I suppose I need take up very little space in saying how very widespread and important a view it is today. That preaching, moral indignation, and even moral seriousness could be well dispensed with if only the causes of social evils were known and remedies for them thereby became possible, is the conscious creed of some and an unexpressed assumption of many more. It is an important element not only of the Marxist outlook but of much that is regarded as “progressive” in liberalism and in non-Marxist socialism. Nor is it devoid of all foundation. For, as Marx himself pointed out, not all the evils of society are the result of deliberate wickedness on the part of individual men. Unemployment, for example, is something that is almost as unwelcome to some employers, many of whom may be put out of business in the course of it, as it is to its working-class victims, and it certainly cannot be prevented by telling employers that it is their duty not to dismiss their employees, or by ordering them to provide jobs and wages for them. Analysis of what brings it about, however, has suggested ways in which, in certain circumstances, governments can take measures that prevent it. If these measures are followed by other evils, this does not mean that anyone has aimed at producing these either, and further enquiry and ingenuity may discover new remedies to be applied by governments, by other corporate bodies, or by individuals. In general, many of the social evils from which men suffer are no more the result of human malevolence than are such physical evils as disease or earthquake. Revilings or penalties are, in such cases, as futile as shaking one’s fist at a storm. Furthermore, it is possible that some deliberately evil acts, such as looting or rape in wartime, or a cowardly suicide during a financial depression, would not have occurred if the situation within which they arose had been prevented from coming about. Thus, when a soldier is shot for rape or looting it may well occur to those who have to enforce the penalty that such crimes would not take place if war itself could be prevented. It is almost as though society were responsible for the crime rather than the men who are punished for it. But tempting as it is to talk in terms that appear to shift moral responsibility from the individual to society as a whole, we should not allow ourselves to be misled by this language, and the following seem to me to be some main considerations to be borne in mind.
(a) It is always the case that evil deeds depend upon circumstances in the sense that if the circumstances had been different the deed might not have been committed. If Judas had not met Jesus he would not have betrayed him, but no one would argue that it was the accident of their meeting rather than Judas himself that was responsible for the deed. (Some people, perhaps even Marx, sometimes speak as though circumstances give rise to passions and motives and that these drive men willy-nilly this way and that. But if this were so, there would be no actions at all, and so no responsibility and no morals, and discussion of the sort we are here engaged in would be nonsensical. But most people, and Marx and Marxists most of the time, do not speak in this way except in metaphor.) The idea rather is that there are persistent social circumstances, such as poverty, which offer temptations that a proportion of men may be expected to succumb to, so that the way to reduce wrongdoing is to remove or reduce the temptations to it by producing circumstances in which they can seldom arise. The production of such circumstances, of course, would also remove from some other people the chance of valiantly overcoming these temptations, but this would be justified chiefly on the ground that it is more important to protect those who would be victims of crime than to provide occasions for moral heroism. Marx seems to have thought, and perhaps he was right, that some of the “crimes” that take place in evil societies are not wrong at all, but are justifiable acts of revolt against intolerable restraints. The practical conclusion that may be drawn is that, besides the duties of protecting individuals from lawless acts and helping the victims of war, unemployment, and poverty, there is, somehow, a duty to overcome lawlessness in general, and to prevent war, poverty, unemployment, and other social evils.
(b) There is, I have said, “somehow” a duty to attempt these things. But whose duty is it? And how is it to be pursued? It is natural to suppose that the duty rests on those best able to fulfill it, that is, on those whose influence in society is greatest, and thus it came about in the nineteenth century that statesmen and well-to-do people concerned themselves with “the condition of the people,” as it was called. This meant that those who were influential in public life were thought to have a duty not only to uphold the law and to help the unfortunate but also to try to change those social conditions in which crime and misfortune accumulated. But on the Marxist view, the moral and social conceptions of the bourgeois ruling class must reflect and support their own interests, which are not the interests of the working classes. From this it is concluded that any benefits that the working classes have received from the bourgeoisie—and it cannot be denied that they have received some—have been unwillingly conceded to them, either as the price of their support against the landowning interest, or in the hope of enticing them away from more radical courses. Marxists, therefore, believe that the only duty that a member of the bourgeoisie can have to help promote the transformation of society must take the form of joining the working-class party that is out to destroy the capitalist order. The working-class Marxist is thus in the happy position of having a duty that is consistent with pride in his class, whereas the bourgeois Marxist must be ashamed of his birth and can only do good when he has renounced it. Thus all reforms promoted by non-Marxists are regarded as hypocritical maneuvers. Not only is moral endeavor diverted from the fulfillment of duties within the social order to the duty of transforming it, but it is not admitted to be moral endeavor unless it is under the direction of the Communist Party.
(c) It is obvious, therefore, that the Communist creed gives definite guidance about whose duty it is to take action to cure the evils that are held to pervade capitalist society. It is the duty (as well as the interest) of the proletariat to take this action, and particularly of the members of “the party of the proletariat.” From this it follows that anyone who seriously desires to cure the evils in question will join the party of the proletariat. The non-Marxist who wishes to see these evils brought to an end has no such definite course open to him. He may lose faith in the efficacy of individual action without knowing what is to replace it. In his perplexity he often turns to the state, for the state is a powerful body capable of drastic action in the public sphere. I do not think it is at all fanciful to say that a result of increased preoccupation with the cure of pervasive social evils has been a transfer of moral concern from individuals and families to state and party. Churches, both because they are conservative in outlook and because they wished to avoid political entanglements, have been more interested in the alleviation of social evils than with their cure. There was a period when industrial concerns like Lever Brothers endeavored to fulfill the newly conceived duties by such means as housing schemes for their employees. But when giant evils are regarded as maladies requiring equally giant cures, men look for giant physicians, therapeutic Leviathans, in the form of governments and mass parties. It may well be that there are other possibilities of remedy not yet apparent to us, but until these are manifest the attack on moralism must tend to a transfer of moral interest. Praising, blaming, and preaching have not been eliminated but have taken on new forms in other places. If the clergyman’s sermons no longer inspire many men to action, governments try to persuade traders to lower their prices or to preach workmen into temporary contentment with their wages.
(d) Another feature of the attack on moralism is a rejection of moralizing. Moralizing is calling people’s attention to moral principles which they ought to follow, and those who reject moralizing have the idea that not only is it useless—and this is the point that we have so far been considering—but also that it is insincere. Marxists, and many non-Marxists too, feel that there is something mean and hypocritical about those who preach morality, as though the preaching were incompatible with the practice of it. I think that this attitude has arisen in part because of the social leveling that has been in progress since the French Revolution. People are unwilling to listen to sermons unless they accept the authority of the preacher or of his message, and throughout the nineteenth century the old message and the old preachers commanded less and less respect, so that now, in the mid–twentieth century, many people regard moral preaching as a base substitute for moral action. Just as Shaw held that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” so the anti-moralist seems to believe that “those who will, do; those who don’t, preach.” (Well-bred, sheltered people often suppose that the main moral principles are so plain that there is something tedious and ill-mannered in mentioning them. They may be right as regards their own social circle, but there are levels of society in which there is very little, if any, conception of duty.) In Marxist morality moral approval is reserved for deeds only, and neither words nor intentions are allowed to have moral weight. This may be illustrated by a passage from The German Ideology in which Marx criticizes the German bourgeoisie for its cowardly acceptance of the morality of “the good will.”23 Marx seems to have believed that Kant taught that a good will was good in abstraction from deeds, but he was quite wrong in believing this, since in the passage in which Kant describes the good will he says that it is not “a mere wish,” but “the straining of every means so far as they are in our control.”24 But Marx, in the passage in question, was concerned to draw a contrast between French liberalism, which was a liberalism of deeds which carried through the French Revolution, and German liberalism, which he thought had been a liberalism of mere intentions that led nowhere; and to draw another contrast between the concrete interests (such as reform of taxation) which gave vigor to French liberalism, and the formalism which, he believed, had rendered German liberalism powerless.
Two associated but distinct theses are involved in this panegyric of action. In the first place Marx is asserting that if someone does not practice his professed moral principles, then they are not his principles at all but mere verbal professions. This is just what Kant holds in his doctrine of “maxims,” but in Marxism it becomes associated with the theory of the union of theory and practice and gets a peculiar moral application. It is argued, for example, that people who preach reform but give support only to projects of gradual improvement, show by their deeds that they have found little to quarrel with in the existing social order. Now part, but only part, of this argument is correct. Moral principles are practical principles, and we know what a man’s practical principles are from his deeds more than from his words alone, so that if what a man does differs widely and often from what he says he believes he ought to do, we feel justified in concluding that his moral talk was mere talk so far as it concerned himself. Involved with this is the view of the Theses on Feuerbach that there is no impassable barrier between thoughts (or acts of will) “in the mind” and practice (or deeds) in the natural world. But this truth should not be confused, as Marxists do confuse it, with the falsehood that sincerity in wanting to cure social ills is possessed only by those who work with the Communist Party for the violent overthrow of the capitalist system. If it were perfectly clear that the evils in question would be cured in this way, and would not be cured but would get much worse if this course were not adopted, then there would be some justification for doubting the sincerity of cautious bourgeois reformers. But once it is allowed to be possible that there may be other means of curing the evils in question, or once it is granted that some of them may not be curable at all, this “activism,” as the attitude in question is sometimes called, loses its plausibility. “By their fruits ye shall know them” is one thing, and Marxist “activism” is quite another. But this “activism” exerts a powerful spell on people of good will who wish to help in the cure of social evils and are persuaded that there is one way only in which this can be done.
A second point to notice in Marx’s attack on the “good will” is that he depreciates the intentions and aims of the agent by comparison with his deeds and their effects. This is different from the point that it is by the deeds of men that we chiefly get to know their intentions. This second point is that the intentions of men matter very little by comparison with what they set in motion by their deeds. I think that this view has colored Marxist thinking ever since Marx’s day and accounts, in part, for an aspect of it that puzzles non-Marxists. When some line of Marxist policy fails, the leader responsible for it may be cast aside, vilified, and shot, even though he may have struggled his utmost to bring the policy to success. It is well known that men like Bukharin who appear to have spent their lives in the Communist cause, are reviled as traitors to it because the policy they advocated was abandoned by the Party. The non-Marxist feels that to blame and disgrace a man merely because his policy fails is morally indefensible. Now part of the Communist objection to such men may be that if they do something that harms the Party they cannot sincerely believe in the Party. That is, part of the objection may result from a stupid misapplication of the dictum “By their fruits ye shall know them.” But I suggest that there is more in it than this, and that another reason for the Communists’ attitude is that they judge a statesman entirely in terms of what he achieves, and that they judge what he achieves entirely in terms of its success in promoting the aims of the Communist Party. I think it is important to notice that when this attitude is adopted the statesman is regarded as a means to the securing of certain aims and as nothing else. The judgment that is passed on him is passed merely in respect of the success or failure of his instrumentality and not in respect of him as a person. His loyalty to the cause as he understands it counts for nothing by comparison with the fact that he miscalculated or was frustrated by events. Thus the Marxists who behave in the way I have described are treating the men they call traitors not as persons, not as beings with some independent moral value, not, as Kant put it, as “ends,” but as broken links in some impersonal process. Yet there is something almost compelling about the way in which the Marxist comes to this. We judge men’s sincerity, he argues, by their deeds; intentions that are belied by deeds were never there, but are simulated by hypocritical words; men’s sincerity is shown by their work for the oppressed, and therefore by their work for the Party that champions the oppressed; men who, from within this Party, pursue policies that endanger its success are the most dangerous enemies of mankind. It is in some such way, it seems to me, that Marxists pass from the condition in which they demand responsible moral commitment to that in which they require only mechanical, and therefore irresponsible, obedience. They have followed the well-worn path that leads from moral indignation, through revolt and revolutionary administration, to cynicism and ultimate nihilism.
A further element in Marx’s criticism of the Kantian “good will” was, it will be remembered, that the German liberals who made profession of it were not pursuing any specific, concrete interests, but merely thought in terms of a formal equality of man that they failed to link with any of the real needs of their time. He accuses them, that is, of being for “equality” but not for any specific equalities. Marx, like Hegel and Fourier, suggests that morality is not an affair of pure practical reason detached from the passions of men. He regards Kant as holding that there is a pure moral reason, distinct from the passions, that ought to bring them into subjection to itself but is frequently unable to do so. We may develop Marx’s view on this matter somewhat as follows. Those who suppose that there is reason on the one hand and passion and interests on the other go on to maintain that morality requires the suppression of the latter by the former. They look upon man as split in two and hope for unity to be established by one half dominating the other. Yet in fact, the argument proceeds, the half that is to play the role of master is not a reality at all, but an abstraction, the shadow of a shade. The shade, on Marx’s view, is the soul as the central feature of religious belief, and the pure moral reason is the shadow of this. Marx thought that the morality of repression was bound up with belief in this soul, and that a morality of development would discard it. In the Christian morality, he held, man was divided against himself, whereas the rejection of supernatural beliefs and of their philosophical counterparts was implicit in any system that looked forward to the development of integrated human beings. In the next section, therefore, we must consider the Marxist ideal of man’s lost unity restored.
[22. ]M.E.G.A., I, 3, p. 394 (Der Mensch scheint ein Geheimnis für den Menschen: man weiss ihn nur zur tadeln und man kennt ihn nicht).
[23. ]M.E.G.A., I, 5, pp. 175ff.
[24. ]Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, chap. 1.