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Milton Fisk, Marxism and Ethics

Milton Fisk, Marxism and Ethics
Andrew Collier

I

When Marxists have written about ethics – which they have
not often done at any length – they have generally
approached the topic in one of two ways: either they have
sought to explain moral codes as ideologies with definite
material foundations and functions in the class struggle; or
they have claimed that there is a positive moral viewpoint
inherent inlarxism – explicit in Marx’s early writings
and/or implicit throughout his work. I have discussed and
rejected the latter view elsewhere (1), and shall not return
to it here. The former exercise is certainly an essential
part of the work of the materialist understanding of history; and in itself it is often de-mystifying as well as
explanatory; but it yields no positive ideas for a ‘Marxist
ethics’. Whether this is to be regretted is a question to
which I shall return.

Milton Fisk’s book Ethics and Society (2) is a systematic attempt to fill this gap: to provide, that is, a Marxist
theory of morality, based firmly on materialism and the
class struggle, and with positive, prescriptive consequences.

Most of its premisses are ones with which every Marxist
would agree: the historical specificity and material basis of
moralities; the class struggle as the motor of history; the
primacy of collective over individual modes of practical
reasoning; and ‘naturalism’ in the sense of ‘this-sidedness’;
the rejection of any grounding of morality outside of the
natural but socially complexified needs of mankind.

I am going to make some fairly far reaching criticisms
of Fisk’s conclusions, so I would like to say at the outset
that I not only agree with these basic principles and value
many of Fisk’s argument for and from them very highly; I
actually know of no better book on the subject in the
whole of Marxist literature. It is closely argued, with pertinent examples and without unexplained technical terms; it
should be accessible both to thinking Marxists without a
philosophical training, and to anyone concerned with moral
philosophy, even if unfamiliar with Marxist theory. It
addresses itself to the central problems of Western moral
philosophy, and does so in a way that no open-minded
person working in that tradition can afford to ignore. It
should become essential reading for anyone who takes both
Marxism and moral philosophy seriously: I hope that a
reasonably priced paperback edition will soon be forthcoming, and make this possible (3).

1 Class and ideology

Marxist accounts of moralities have always seen them as
aspects of the ideologies of classes in struggle. In relation
to the moralities of the oppressing classes, these accountshave an unambiguously de-mystifying role. The medieval
ethic of chivalry, the puritan ethic of thrift and industriousness, or the nationalist ethic of self-sacrifice for the
fatherland lose all their plausibility and attractiveness if
understood to be conditions for the exploitation of peasants
and workers by lords and bosses, or the sacrifice of youth
on the altar of the arms profiteers.

But what about ‘proletarian morality’? On the one

20

hand we have statements such as that of Marx and Engels
that ‘Law, morality and religion are to (the proletariat) so
many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just
as many bourgeois interests’ (Communist Manifesto) – which
seems to suggest that the ‘explanatory critique’ of the
class nature of morality leads to amoralism, such that the
proletariat could base its actions openly on self-interest, as
other classes have done covertly. On the other hand we
have references to a specifically proletarian morality,
which consists precisely in furthering the political aims of
the workers. Thus Lenin insists there is a communist morality, and rejects only morality ‘based on extra-human and
extra-class concepts’. He goes on to say, ‘Our morality is
entirely subordinated to the interests of the proletariat’s
class struggle’ (‘The Tasks of the Youth Leagues’, Selected
Works, p.613).

But perhaps the contradiction between ‘amorality’ and
‘class morality’ is merely verbal: if collective egoism is the
foundation of individual altruism, as Plekhanov suggests (4),
then individual workers may observe a ‘communist morality’

in the service of the ‘amoral’ egoism of their class. This
formulation serves to locate the problem, but not to solve
it, for we all know the fallacy of Mill’s inference: ‘Each
person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general
happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all
persons.’ The fallacy does not disappear if we substitute
the aggregate of all proletarians for that of all persons; we
still need to know what are the relations between the collective self-interest and the obligation of the individual not logical entailment, certainly. Is it an instrumental relationship (individual altruism as a means to collective advancement which is in turn a means to individual interest),
or an educational one (altruism inculcated in the individual
by the collective), or what? Fisk’s book is an attempt to
provide an answer.

For Fisk, morality can be nothing else but the obligation of an individual to a group of which he or she is a
member, and to fellow-members of that group. On the one
hand, where there is no conflict between individual interest
and obligation to someone outside the individual, any talk
of morality is redundant. On the other hand, that obligation
cannot be to God, or to some abstract Kantian moral law,
for there is no earthly reason why we should take notice of
such alien imperatives; and this applies too to those coming
from groups of which one is not a member. This (so far,
negative) conception of moral obligation, combined with a
Marxist account of society according to which classes are
the crucial groups into which mankind is divided, is deemed
to yield a class-determined set of duties as envisaged by
Lenin. Two points need to be added to this, though: firstly,
Fisk also refers to groups other than classes, such as genders, ethnic and sexual minorities; secondly, he refers to
sum-groups such as a whole society with whose interest
ruling classes will generally confuse their own; and though
oppressed groups do well to be very suspicious of appeals
to the sum-group’s interests, they do appear to have some

purchase where alternative obligation is absent. Mankind as
a whole has no common interest, and hence generates
duties only by virtue of the hope of future world socialism.

My first criticism of this position concerns an idea
which I think underlies a lot of Fisk’s arguments, though it
is not explicitly stated in the text. Indeed, he also says
things which are inconsistent with it. This is the idea that
classes (and other groups) are more or less spontaneously
constituted as agencies. He often attributes to classes
actions which an organised class, a ‘class for itself’, could
carry out, but which a mere ‘class in itself’, a group sharing a position in the social structure, could not do as such.

For instance, he regards discipline imposed by a group on
its members as a necessary condition of personal interaction acquiring an ethical character (pp.6-7). But discipline can only be imposed by an organised group or hierarchy. A class is not necessarily in a position to impose
discipline on its members – such a capacity depends on a
degree of organisation which can only be the product of a
prolonged struggle. In fact, Marx thought, probably correctly, that some classes, because of the atomised nature
of their place in production, could never achieve such organisation; unless the organised proletariat was strong
enough to win them over as allies, they could achieve political representation only through the external discipline of
a dictator. Such was the relation of the small proprietors
of rural France to Napoleon Ill. Are we to infer that their
personal relations had no ethical character?

Certainly, Fisk is not unaware that the ‘groups’ that
form us into the people we are, are not for the most part
the sort of group you could join (e.g. a party, a trade
union, a women’s group), but the sort you find yourself in
(e.g. a class, a race, a family, a gender). But he talks
about the class determinants of ethics and ideology generally in a way which only makes sense if each class came
into the world with its own ideology, strategically related
to its interests, except insofar as it was infiltrated by that
of another class. Not that he would deny that, as Bukharin
put it, ‘the psychology of a class is not always identical
with the material interests of that class’ (Historical
Materialism, pp.287-288). On the contrary, he insists that
we are not obliged to accept the ideas current in our own
class – but only because they might be the result of the
influence of an alien class.

In deciding ethical principles we do not want to
concentrate simply on the image people have of
themselves. We know that this is often misleading as to what they really are. This is not because people are inherently prone to error about
themselves, but because people live in a world
of conflicting groups. The more powerful among
the conflicting groups have a decisive influence
on communication and education. They are,
then, able to build up in people a distorted
image of what they are.

(p.21)
If the problem of ideology were really like this, things

would be very simple. One could identify the ideas of the
ruling class and the means by which they are disseminated,
and distinguish those ideas in the oppressed classes from
their own; there would be ready made ideas of the oppressed to be defended against such infiltration. There are both
empirical and theoretical objections to this
position.

In the first place, empirically, there have been many
ideologies which have arisen spontaneously among the
oppressed and have served, psychologically speaking, to
enhance or preserve their self-esteem, to ease the burden
of their conditions of life, to give a heart to the heartless
world – and, politically speaking, to reconcile them to their
oppression. Every ideology which idealises the oppressed in
comparison with their oppressors serves this two-edged
function. Sometimes, such ideologies have been persecuted
by misguided ruling classes; other – wiser and more cynical
– ruling classes have been known to value these autonomous

but constraining ideologies of the oppressed. Consider the
aristocratic atheist who thinks that religion (of a certain
sort) is good for the masses. Socialists can learn a lot from
Nietzsche’s concept of a slave rebellion in morals, which
defeats the ideology of the masters at the level of moral
values, and in the process makes a real slave rebellion
appear unnecessary, as the slave class is seen as superior
in respect of what is considered the highest virtue – moral
virtue.

We do not have to go back to second and third century Christianity to find such ideological mechanisms: they
are present in the worker who refuses to read about politics and economics, regarding them as the preserves of despised bourgeois intellectuals; the unemployed graduate who
considers de-industrialisation as the royal road to a lowtechnology utopia without the work-ethic; the woman who,
to the irritation of her male friends, plays on her status of
helpless – but morally superior – femininity; the Rastafarian
who lets the National Front off the hook because black
people ought not to be working in factories and taking
Ephraim’s jobs; the third world nationalist who makes a virtue out of consumer austerity. Such ideologies are the principal enemies of socialism, both because they prevail among
those groups which, being oppressed, could otherwise be
expected to work for socialism as in their objective interests, and because they are actually more inherently regressive than the ‘official’, ruling class ideologies.

The only place given by Fisk to the possibility of
regressive ideas arising among the oppressed as an effect
of oppression itself rather than of the propaganda of the
oppressor, is in connection with intimidation.

Out of a fear created by constant harassment,
the people of a certain group may have
appeared to be passive, docile, and contented ••••
Through struggle it becomes clear to them that
the old code of docility was not the product of
what they actually were. It was the joint product of their own fear in the face of intimidation and of the intimidator’s propag,anda about
them.

(p.22)
Aside from the empirical inadequacy of this as an account
of spontaneous regressive ideology, the phrase ‘what they
actually were’ raises a spectre of idealist ethics which will
not easily be laid: the idea of ‘becoming what you are’, i.e.

not what you empirically are but what you ‘really’ are, i.e.

what you are not but the author in question wishes you
were. I shall follow this up in the next section.

The theoretical question concerns the ontology of
individuals in society. Fisk seems to be treating the ~
as the fundamental social category. But groups are consti.tuted by the structure of a society, which distributes individuals into groups. One cannot treat the groups (classes,
genders, etc.) as if they were autonomous entities, let
alone ones within which teleological explanation is licensed. The attribution to groups as sets of social positions
(‘classes in themselves’), of activities which can only be
carried out by groups as organised collectives (‘classes for
themselves’) is one effect of this autonomisation of groups,
which has already been noted. There are others, which I
shall discuss in the following sections.

2 The Social Person and Naturalism
Fisk is out to prove that, given an adequate account of the
social nature of human individuals, a naturalistic approach
to ethics can only yield his ‘class relativist’ conclusions (5).

To this end he presents an account of the relation between
the natural and the social in the formation of individuals
which I think is correct in essentials, and importantly so.

He points out that there are two opposite errors on this
matter: atomism, which sees the individual as only peripherally affected by his or her membership of society, having an essential nature (‘core person’) which is autonomous
and, as it were, pre-social. This is the classical bourgeois
21

conception and (if we leave aside a certain ‘radical’ rhetoric fashionable in the 1960s about ‘de-socialisation’ and
the evils of ‘labelling’) has had little appeal for the left.

(2) The ‘aspect’ theory, according to which a person is literally nothing but an aspect of the social organism. Fisk
points out that this was Mussolini’s view. Either view
would presumably remove the motivation for socialism: for
the atomist, the task is not to transform society but to
keep it at arm’s length, and for the organicist, discontent
with one’s place in society would be like the rebellion of a
limb against the body.

Fisk’s view is that we do have certain invariant
natural needs (which he lists – see the next section), but
that the form they take is always socially determined. The
relation of natural to social, one might say (6), is that of
matter to form, or of an abstract specification to its concrete realisation. It is the same, I think, as the relation of
consumption to production, as spelt out in Marx’s 1857
Introduction.

This view appears at first sight midway between the
atomist and holist extremes. But it is important to distinguish it from another intermediate position: that which
regards us as split between natural and social selves. This
is an instance of the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’:

the fact that we are natural beings socially complexified is
interpreted as meaning that a part of us remains natural,
while a new social part becomes attached. This faulty
social psychology generally issues in an ethical dualism of
natural and selfish versus acquired and altruistic desires.

As against this it is important to recognise – as Fisk does
in his discussion of self-interest, that ‘selfishness’ is just as
much a social product as is ‘social’ behaviour; and conversely that our ‘highest’ aspirations have their roots in
natural needs.

But when Fisk comes to argue that naturalism entails
the primacy of group interests over personal interests, he
appears to forget this. Arguing against the idea of ‘enlightened self-interest’, he says:

In reality no person is ever a mere pre-social
entity looking for a group that is most likely to
advance its pre-social needs. Any person is already a social being. This has the important
consequence that the group a person might
choose as best for realising his or her pre-social
needs could be the one that blocks the social
needs that person already has. Thus enlightened
self-interest could easily lead to a one-sided
development of the human individual, realising
pre-social at the expense of already acquired
social needs.

(p.24)
On the face of it, quite a different consequence follows

from the first two sentences in this passage: that
self-interest is already social, so that one can’t divide it
into social and pre-social parts to the advantage of either.

But in the light of what I have said earlier about the nonidentity of formative groups or institutions and collectives
based on common interests, there is more to be said. A
person’s ‘already acquired social needs’ will have been acquired through institutions such as their family, church,
school, the labour market, the media etc. They may well
not coincide with that person’s interests as a worker, a
woman, a homosexual etc. One function of the concept of
nature, natural needs etc. has been to distinguish among a
person’s mutually conflicting socially acquired needs between those that are ineliminable whatever social or personal changes come about (e.g. for food and shelter), and
others. This is the only acceptable sense of ‘pre-social
needs’, and in this sense, the prioritisation of pre-social
needs should be quite acceptable to a socialist. There is no
danger of pre-social needs in any other sense being prioritise, because there are no such needs. Let me illustrate
this point using Fisk’s own example:

Suppose you are a woman who has just been
offered a sizeable increase in salary to assist
the male employment officer in your workplace
reviewing job applicants. Pay in your current
job classification is little above the legal minimum, and you have several dependents. You
need the extra money from the new job to move
to an adequate apartment in a safe area. This
need does not stem from your nature in isolation
but from the social conditions of deprivation. It
became clear when the job was approved that it
was to be a screen. Your being a woman would
be used to protect the management if it were
charged with sexual discrimination in hiring.

(pp.12-13)
To illustrate the conflict between group interest and ‘presocial needs’, Fisk takes up this example and comments:

Her unfulfilled need for a better apartment is a
consequence of a system of inequality, and is
thus socially conditioned. But behind this lies a
need for shelter that is not socially conditioned.

Once we artificially abstract this pre-social
need from the context of social inequality, she
can be considered as someone who might take
care of the pre-social need for shelter by
accepting the system of discrimination imposed
by management.

(p.24)
The woman has two conflicting wants, both socially conditioned: for ‘an adequate apartment in a safe area’, and for
non-discriminatory hiring. The adherent of enlightened

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22

I

self-interest has no reason for looking behind them for
pre-social needs, any more than Fisk has. One would have
to introduce, from outside her wants as described, some
principle about the relative weight that should be given to
needs stemming from group loyalties and other needs, or to
those stemming from loyalty to the group of women and
those stemming from loyalty to the group comprised of her
and her dependents, before one could resolve this dilemma;
or alternatively one would be thrown back on the subjective strength of the conflicting wants. If ‘naturalism’ rules
out anything, it is just such an appeal to an external principle not grounded in the agent’s existing (socially conditioned) wants. And this exclusion cuts two ways: certainly
it rules out a kind of dogmatic egoism:

••• by avoiding group entanglements the person
forfeits the realization of those among his or
her possibilities that depend on cooperation and
mutual understanding. The selfish person is not,
then, acting naturally but rather acting in a
way that puts obstacles before the most natural
ways of acting for a social person.

(p.23)
But it also cuts against altruism, if that means always
putting group interest first.

Certainly, there are circumstances in which the ‘presocial’ aspect of some needs comes to the fore: suppose the
woman faced eviction for non-payment of rent, so that unless she could raise the money she would be sleeping outside in sub-zero temperatures. In that case, the ‘abstraction’ is not artificial, but brought about by the circumstances themselves. And in that case, the argument for her
taking the job is much stronger.

Fisk has to show that group needs alone are natural:

the most he can claim to have shown is that they are also
natural. The case for treating non-group interests as alien
is based on the claims 0) that apparently ‘private’ interests
are actually those of alien groups, and (iD that the ‘core
person’ is formed by group membership. Both v iews seem to
me to be plausible only if one holds a version of the
‘aspect theory’ of the person (7). It is just not the case
that the need for shelter has its source in alien groups, as
Fisk himself admits when he refers to its pre-social aspect.

Such groups may make use of whatever weakens someone’s
group loyalties; but not everyone who chickens out of a
fight is an agent of the enemy.

The whole concept of the ‘core person’ requires
further consideration. Fisk has quite rightly argued against
the atornist view that the core person is asocial: there is
no part of us that is not a social product. But that does
not require us to say that the core person is social: it
would be better to say that there is no core person.

The concept of the ‘core person’ – or its timehonoured equivalents, like ‘real self’, ‘true nature’, ‘essential being’ – always serves a moral function, which it logically pre-supposes, and of which it can’t be the ground. It
serves to divide the actually existing desires of an individual into two groups, one of which is then privileged at
the expense of the other. There are many possible ways to
divide up an ‘individual’, and every ‘core person’ theory
selects one on the basis of moral judgments it has already
decided upon. There may be good reasons for preferring
Fisk’s ethic of solidarity among the oppressed to e.g. the
Aristotelian cultivation of species-specific traits, but
neither follows from the (shared) conception of the social
person (political animal).

A propos of the woman in his example, Fisk talks
about remaining ‘true to one’s nature as formed by the
group of women’; but it is most certainly not – and could
not be – the collectivity of women who determine what it
is to be a woman. It is (a) the givens of biology, (b) the
institutions of socialisation, particularly the family, and (c)
the code which determines what possibilities are open and
what closed to a woman in a given society. We make each
other, said Marx and Engels, but we don’t make ourselves.

To be true to one’s ‘nature’, one’s ‘identity’, as a woman, a

worker or whatever is to to be true to what existing society has made of one. The tendency to slide from talking
about group interests to talking about group identity should
be resisted: it can only lead to putting flowers on one’s
chains.

This problem crops up again in Fisk’s attempt to
distinguish the authentic from the ‘imposed’ needs of
oppressed groups. But first I shall make some general
remarks about the theory of human needs.

3 Needs

The discussion about class struggle and ideology, individuals
and groups, draws on a scientific theory – albeit a contested one – the materialist conception of history. This is
not true of the section on human needs, a topic on which
there is notoriously no theory, or no one theory, within
Marxism (8).

In the absence of such a theory, Fisk presents his
own. But for all its commonsensical plausibility, it remains
an exercise in speculative anthropology. He declares that
there are four invariant ‘survival needs’, namely for food,
sex, support and deliberation. But this list strikes me as
arbitrary. Only food and support are strictly necessary for
individual survival, and moreover support and deliberation
could well be regarded as derivative of the physiologically
grounded needs for food and sex, universal only because
they are necessary in order to satisfy these needs in any
society. But then there are many other such empirically
invariant and necessary derivative needs, such as curiosity
and the need for power. Once universal needs without direct physiological determinants are allowed into the list,
there is literally no knowing when to stop.

lt might be asked, what is the alternative to anthropological speculation on commonsensical foundations in this
matter? I think two possibilities present themselves. One
could draw on some scientific theory such as psychoanalysis. This would be my preferred solutit)n,but of course
psychoanalysis, like any social science, including the materialist conception of history, is contested, and perhaps Fisk
:ejects it. Anyway it would be out of place to argue for it
m the context of a book on ethics; and even if it were to
be accepted on trust, the question would remain: which
psychoanalytical theory of needs? That of the early Freud
and Reich? That of the later Freud and Klein? The former
for men and the latter for women? Perhaps after all it
would be better, at the present stage of knowledge, to opt
for the other alternative.

The alternative solution is to abstain from speculating
about invariant needs altogether, and to talk only about
the specific needs of specific classes in specific societies.

Such forbearance would not be to assume that there are no
invariant needs, but only to recognise that, as everyone is
in fact a member of a given class in a given society, we
don’t need to postulate invariant needs before knowing
what it is rational to do.

lt is instructive in this connection to look at the way
Marx and Engels reply to certain objections to communism:

You are horrified at our intending to do away
with private property. But in your existing
society, private property is already done away
with for nine tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its nonexistence in the hands of those nine tenths.

And again:

It has been objected that upon the abolition of
private property all work will cease, and universal laziness with overtake us.

According to this, bourgeois society ought
long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer
idleness; for those of its members who work,
acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work.

(‘The Communist Manifesto’, in The Revolution
of 1848, p.82)
23

One may surmise from this how Marx and Engels might
have answered the objections to socialism as ‘contrary to
human nature’, presented today by many social ethologists.

They need neither have presented their own speculations
about human nature, nor indulged in historicist sophisms to
the effect that ‘there is no such thing as human nature’,
which won’t stand up to two minutes’ examination (9). They
might have said: So human beings have an inherent need for
private territory? But capitalism deprives the working class
of the means to satisfy this need. It is not us socialists
who need to worry about your discoveries, it is the defenders of the present order. We aim to abolish class property
in production (and you will surely not ask us to believe
that our long-tailed ancestors bequeathed us a need to own
shares in limi ted companies?) precisely to secure for each
worker his or her own territory.

This sort of defence of the possibility of socialism in
terms of existing institutions, and its desirability in terms
of existing needs of oppressed people, is characteristic of
classical Marxist arguments for socialism. We don’t need to
ask whether a need is integral to a class or ‘imposed’.

After all, the whole nature of the proletarians as proleVlrians is ‘imposed’. Insofar as their needs are social and class
needs, they are the product of capitalist society. There are
no ‘autonomous’ needs, proletarian but not imposed. The
materialist concept of ‘the social individual’ precludes from
the outset any authentic-needs/imposed-needs distinction;
and socialist politics has no use for it. The case for socialism rests on the restrictions placed by capitalism on the
satisfaction of the needs of its exploited: socialism must
take sides with those needs, warts and all. The ‘consumer
society’ aspect of capitalism is its progressive side, as
Marx noted:

In spite of all the pious talk about frugality (the
capi talist) searches for all possible ways of stimulating (the workers) to consume, by making
his commodities more attractive, by filling their
ears with babble about new needs. It is precisely this aspect of the relationship between capital and labour which is an essential civilizing
force, and on which the historic justification but also the contemporary power – of capital is
based.

If we forget this, and start trying to tell people what they
ought to want, we are back with moralistic ut<?pias, and
the political effects can only be Blanquism in opposition
and Stalinism in power.

This is not to deny that a coherent sense can be given
to the notion of a false need. But it is to deny its political
import, and to warn of the totalitarian and anti-working
class potential of its incorporation in political discourse. It
is surely a sign of the political maturity of Western workers, not their ‘backwardness’, that they slam the door on
the sort of socialist who tells them that they don’t really
need annual holidays or televisions or whatever.

4 Summary and an observation
The above three sections of this essay have been concerned
with three parallel errors on the part of Milton Fisk, concerning the nature of classes in society, of the social individual, and of human needs respectively. I claim that:

0) the classes and other groups whose interrelations consti tute the social structure, and membership of which
determines our social being, are not in the first place and
for the most part organised groups with consciously worked
out ideologies geared to their collective interests. The
common interests of their members are therefore not
necessarily embodied in any practice of discipline or solidarity, or code of values and duties effective among their
members.

(ii) it is not possible to map the determinance of class
relations within the social structure, onto a supposed dominance of class-determined characteristics within the individual. Only in special political conjunctures, which result
from long struggles, do class interests come to prevail in
24

the motivation of class members, and it does not help to
present this process of ideological transformation as one of
discovery of a true nature that was there all along.

(iii) a division of human needs into ‘true’ and ‘false’ ones
along political lines is unjustified, unhelpful and dangerous.

These considerations severely limit the scope of the
only type of obligation that Fisk recognises: the obligations
that come with membership of a group. In view of this, I
think it may be worth venting a sense of unease that I
have about Fisk’s ethics, though a sense of unease is of
course not an argument.

Throughout the history of ethical and political reflection, one enduring contrast has been between universalism
and exclusiveness. Most people to the left of centre would
regard it as an important breakthrough when the national
exclusiveness of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks or Romans
came to be criticised by people like Amos, the Cynics or
the early Christians. But this universal ism was not founded
on any social group with real common interests: are we
wrong to admire it? Or to bring the issue up to date, let
me ask about three instances, the first perhaps rather flippant, the second very serious, though, for the time being,
of no immediate practical relevance, the third from current
politics, though perhaps less problematic than the others
from Fisk’s standpoint.

(i) Should we condemn Marx and Engels as traitors to
their class (the bourgeoisie)? If not, why not? (10)
(ii) The use of Red Terror in post-revolutionary Russia
can be defended in terms of the exigencies of civil war;
the use of mass terror against workers, peasants and the
Communist Party itself by Stalin can be condemned from
the standpoint of working class politics and ethics; but between these two judgments, it seems to me that there is a
large area of the practice of the Bolsheviks which is very
questionable – indeed, which must be called crime rather
than error – yet which can’t be condemned from the standpoint of a purely class morality, as the victims were class
enemies, or at least outside the alliance of classes on
which workers’ power was based. Violence’ is sometimes
necessary, but there should be a very strong presumption
against its use – much stronger than can be based on the
idea that, other things being equal (i.e. class things), we
should treat people well by virtue of the possible future
uni ty of mankind under socialism.

(iii) The commitment of sections of the left in the UK
to ‘buying British’, and to import controls seems to be to

be contrary to the spirit of socialist internationalism; I
doubt if this view can be justified purely in terms of the
really shared interests of the working class worldwide. A
sharper form of the same problem arises in connection with
the collective interests of white workers in South Africa,
for instance.

It seems to me that some form of human fellow feeling independent of group interests plays a part in the
motivation of values – a view which need not involve any
naive optimism about human nature: Hume, for instance,
requires only the irreducibility of ‘sympathy’, making no
assumptions about its relative strength when pitted against
self-love. All of which may sound rather un marxist, though
Marx with his maxim ‘nihil humani a me alienum puto’

might not have been averse to it.

5 Alternative approaches
The conclusion must be that, though Fiskian obligation
holds an important place in practical reasoning, it can by
no means account for the whole of it. If Fisk wants to say
that other areas of practical reason are not moral ones, I
would not argue; but they are none the less important for
that. Does this mean that Marxism has nothing to say about
practical reasoning outside the context of solidarity within
” a collective? What then has come of the claim that collective practical reasoning has priority over individual?

What remains of the latter, I think, is that, because
structures (not collectives) have explanatory primacy over
individual ‘wills’, the alteration of structures – which
requires collective action – is always a more radical and
effective solution to a problem than the alteration of
individual ‘wills’. In Plekhanov’s words:

Virtue requires, not to be preached, but to be
prepared by the reasonable arrangement of
social relations. By the light-hearted verdict of
the conservatives and reactionaries of the last
century, the morality of the French materialists
up to the present day considered to be an egotistical morality. They themselves gave a much
truer definition: in their view it passed entirely
into politics.

(Selected Philosophical Works, Vol. I, p.493)
The idea that politics and morality are alternative ways in
which mankind (or parts of it) confronts its problems, such
that over-rating morality diverts from political action to
individual adjustment, must be the first word of any Marxist account of morality.

But it can’t be the last word. This is not, as is often
said, because political action itself requires moral motivation: such motivation is neither always present, nor always
admirable when it is. The point is rather that in the lag
between the desire for revolution and its accomplishment,
there are better and worse ways of living, and it is possible to think and argue rationally about them, even though
their relation to the political struggle may be minimal. To
postdate all personal cheques to the revolution is mere
eschatological evasiveness, ‘pie in the sky’; and to deny the
distinction and tension between ‘the personal’ and ‘the political’ is to turn a blind eye to the following facts: (i) that
political change can’t be brought about simply by changing
individuals; (iD that political change will not in itself
resolve all personal problems; (iil) that the set of changes
in individuals that are politically significant is determinable
only by looking atPolitical requirements, not at personal
ones; they are just those changes which will lead to effective political activity; (iv) that such changes may not be the
most personally significant, and conversely, the most personally signrticant changes may have little or no political
import; (v) that there is no guarantee of harmony between
personal and political liberation; qualities requisite in a
political militant may be undesirable ones if considered
aside from politics; (vi) there is no generally applicable
reason for supposing that the qualities requisite either for
socialist political effectiveness or for personal fulfilment

under capitalist conditions, will resemble the characteristics of people in a future socialist commonwealth. For
instance, physical courage may be a virtue in a revolutionary, but an aberration in a citizen of a peaceful socialist
world. In general, a certain ‘hardness’ is necessary both for
personal survival and for political effectiveness under capitalism, while we may expect people raised under communism to be ‘soft’ to the point of what might now be considered as decadence, and be none the worse for it.

Does all this mean that Marxism has nothing to say
about personal ethics, except that it should play second
fiddle to politics?

In fact, I believe, it has two kinds of thing to say,
one vague and positive, the other specific and negative.

The specific and negative sort derives from the contribution made by the materialist conception of history to the
explanation of moral codes. There are some ideas which
cannot in logic be held conjointly with the true explanatory
account of those ideas. To explain such ideas is by the
same token to criticise them. Marxist accounts of moral
ideologies constitute just such ‘explanatory critiques’ (11).

Convinced of the truth of such a critique of one’s own
moral ideology, one would have to revise it in determinate
ways. There can be no generally applicable theory of the
content of the resultant moral ideology, except in the
vaguest possible terms: it will be a ‘this-sided’ one, and
hence ultimately hedonistic in aim and rational in method.

This conjunction by no means generates utilitarianism,
which is only one specification of this much broader naturalistic type of ethic. It is necessary to say this, because
there is a tendency among Marxists to see any defence of
rationality and hedonism as leading at best to a Benthamite
calculus, at worst to cynical egoism. No doubt this is why
E.P. Thompson felt justified, on the basis of my essay ‘On
the Production of Moral Ideology’, and in complete ignorance of my age, class and personal habits, in calling me a
‘revolting young bourgeois’ (12). Engels warned his contemporaries not to view the sex life of primitive peoples
‘through brothel-spectacles’; it is equally necessary to warn
against seeing rationalism and hedonism in ethics through
stock exchange spectacles.

Negatively speaking, then, it is possible to say that
explanatory critiques will tend to eliminate irrational,
other-worldly and anti-hedonistic aspects of the moral
ideologies to which they are applied. But the end product
will remain a historically and biographically determinate
complexification of hedonism, not an abstract utilitarianism
(13).

The application of explanatory critiques to one’s own
moral ideology is, I believe, the only rational content that
can be given to the practice of ‘ethics’, if one is to remain
within materialism. It is therefore the only ‘ethics’ which is
compa tible with Marxism; but not a ‘Marxist ethics’ as
such, for Marxian theory is not the only source of the relevant explanatory critiques.

The vague and positive implication of Marxism for
ethics is precisely naturalism, in the sense of justifying
values only in terms of human interests. It is vague because
the term ‘human interests’ is vague, but while we remain at
that level of generality, it must remain vague, for to
achieve specifici ty, the historical and biogaphical conjuncture must be specified, and an explanatory critique applied
to the ethic characteristic of that conjuncture. The resultant set of values in each case will be as unique as the conjuncture to which the critique was applied (14).

Footnotes
1 In my paper ‘Scientific Socialism and the Question of Socialist Values’, in Issues in
Marxist Philosophy, Vol.lV, and the Canadian Journal of Philosophy’s supplement on
Marx and Moral Philosophy.

2 Ethics and Society: A Marxist Interpretation of Value, Harvester Press, Brighton,
1980.

3 There are two terminological points that I would like to mention. One of the errors
which Fisk, in accordance with a common but unfortunate Marxist practice, attributes to bourgeois ideology, is ‘individualism’. The impression is given that this term
refers to one identifiable ideology. In fact, it has many senses, some of them mutually incompatible, and some acceptable to a Marxist, some not. The ambiguity of

25

this word is itself a valuable weapon in the armoury of bourgeois ideology, and no
Marxist should use the word without specifying the exact sense, which I am afraid
Fisk does not do. Thus on the first page of the preface (p.xiii) he says: ‘Individualism is not just a view that backs up the behaviour of the loner. It also holds that
the nature of the human agent can be understood independently of the groups he or
she happens to live in.’ But the sort of individualism referred to in the latter sentence does not ~ back up the loner – rather it holds him or her down to be
kicked by the agents of ‘society’ (i.e. of the ruling class).

The second misleading term is ‘relativism’. Admittedly, this term~ given a clear
technical sense in the text. But it is an unusual one. Views like Fisk’s (and mine)
which uphold objectivity in practical reason, but recognise that there are objectively good reasons for people in different social situations (e.g. different classes) doing
different things, would not generally be regarded as relativist. On the other hand it
is arguable that most of the orthodoxies in English-speaking moral philosophy are
relativist in a stronger sense (e.g. emotivism, prescriptivism, moral traditions theor-

8
9

y).

4 Selected Philosophical Works, Vol. IV, p.241. Plekhanov opts for the ‘educational’

relation between collective egoism and individual altruism, which is no doubt also
Mill’s conception. The problems of this view are about the fate of this altruism
when subjected to an ‘explanatory critique’ (see below).

5 Where naturalism is defined by two postulates:

‘I. Ethical life and all that on which it depends is totally encompassed within the
universe of people, their groups, and the material things they use.’

’11. Human nature is the ultimate basis for the origin, the authority, and the
validity of ethical principles’ (p.20; and the four possible types of ethic are those
based on selfishness, enlightened self-interest, group interst (Fisk’s view), and selflessness.

6 To put it another way:

‘ … !!2. single environment can show the nature of anything, because to know the
nature of anything (a woman, a lump of iron, x-rays, mosquitoes or black holes) is to
know its potential; that if it is in one environment it will appear or behave in one
way; that if it is in another, it may be different.’ Janet Radcliffe Richards, in The
Sceptical Feminist, p.37. This whole discussion of ‘The Proper Place of Nature’Til
Chapter Two of that much maligned book is excellent, showing up most Marxist
accounts of the same subject as neglectfully amateur.

The version of the ‘aspect theory’ which I believe Fisk slides into at times treats
individuals as aspects not of society as a whole, but of the groups of which they
are members. While less oppressively monolithic than more holistic theories, this is
in some ways further from the truth, in that it ignores ways other than group membership in which individuals are produced by the social structure, and appears to
make the group rather than the social structure the primary entity. It thus res-

26

10
11

12
13

14

embles the model of non-atomistic social science commonly presented by its atomist
opponents, as a theory of groups rather than a theory of relations (see Roy
Bhaskar’s discussion of this matter in The Possibility of Naturalism, pp.31-47).

See Kate Soper’s book On Human Needs, Harvester Press, 1981.

Anyone who seriously believed that there is no human nature should have no objection to admitting a squirrel, a turnip or a pair of binoculars to Party membership.

The popularity of that slogan comes from the need to refute those who say ‘you
can’t change human nature’, meaning by ‘human nature’ the way people we know
tend to behave. Strictly speaking, it is a trivial tautology that human nature can’t
be changed, because human nature is by definition that in people which can’t be
changed and which explains why they act one way in one environment and a different way in another (see note 5). You can make steam or ice out of water, but that
is not to change the nature of H2 0, because it is no part of the nature of H2.o to be
a liquid, but only to be liquid between zero and 100 degrees centigrade. What we
need to ask is what the content of human nature is, and, hence, how people’s
behaviour will change with specific changes of circumstances.

Milton Fisk avoids the obvious errors in this area, but his conception of human
nature as the four ‘survival needs’ (quite apart from the objections I have made
against it) limits what can be said about this overmuch. A great many concrete
results can be obtained about how people will behave under these or those conditions.

Speaking for myself as a WASP male petty bourgeois, I could certainly not account
for my own political commitments in terms of groups of which I am an involuntary
member, and I would not ascribe them to ‘altruism’ either.

The term ‘explanatory critique’ is Roy Bhaskar’s – see his article ‘Scientific Explanation and Human Emancipation’ in Radical Philosophy No.26. My own article ‘On the
Production of Moral Ideology’ in Radical Philosophy No.9 was an attempt at an
explanatory critique in the context of ethics (though marked by a certain naive
optimism). See also Roy Edgley’s writings about dialectic.

The Poverty of Theory, p.179.

This is in line with Marx’s comment about Bentham’s utilitarianism: ‘To know what
is useful for a dog, one must investigate the nature of dogs. This nature is not itself deducible from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would
judge all human acts, movements, relations etc. according to the principle of utility
would first have to deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature
as historically modified in each epoch’ (Capital, Vol. I, pp.758-59, note 51, Pelican
edition).

As my conclusion is, in form, pure Spinozism, I had better mention the difference in
content: Spinoza’s conatus is not identical with Freud’s ‘pleasure-principle’, and in
speaking of hedonism I am referring to the latter.

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