Human Nature and Morality - Socialist Standard (1989)

After Marx died there grew up a legend that his theory of social causation was too narrowly mechanistic to provide accommodation for any sort of ethics. No doubt Marx, in combating the sentimental "moralising" of certain utopian contemporaries who called themselves "the True Socialists", had leaned so far backward as to give semblance if not substance for fathering on him views whose alleged paternity he would have disclairned.

The humanistic socialism combated by Marx, like its contemporary counterpart, was a pseudo-political trend, inspired by the literati, philosophers and pundits. Moses Hess was for a time their most representative spokesman. For the early humanists as with the latter day ones, socialism was not a question of "by bread alone" - even though bread might be included. Socialism was primarily a question of moral values. Stress was laid on brotherly love, the dignity of man and concern for the individual. From such political piety, socialism came to be defined as "the ethics of love". Then, socialism took the guise of contemporary humanism. Now, humanism assumes the role of contemporary socialism.

Like many of the views Marx fought against, the arguments of the True Socialists have turned up over and over again in a variety of social situations, tricked out each time in fresh frills and flounces, as if making their first bow on the stage of world history.

Humanism the classless ethic

Common to all shades of this humanistic approach is the tenet that socialism is not basically a question of economic interests but humanitarian ideals. Not a matter for the stomach, but an affair of the heart, and that a moral revolution must be the prelude to the social revolution. Not only, argue the humanists, have men an women altruistic feelings, but implicit in these feelings are the ideals of communism. All that is necessary is to encourage and help promote these altruistic tendencies, to actualise the Brotherhood of Man based on universal love.

If our true nature is some residual and permanent quality of the human species, then every individual is at least in embryo a communist. But what the right kind of social conditions necessary for this are, the humanists all through the ages have been very vague about. Again, if our essence is our "true nature", then this human essence transcends all social systems and classes. Landed proprietors, capitalists, peasants and wage workers are all equally capable of actualising their "true nature" into the communist way of life. Thus, while many humanists have called for the abolition of all classes they have done so in the name of an abstract classless ethic. While they will admit that the class struggle itself is inevitably engendered by the competitive character of capitalist society, they nevertheless hold that it militates against the growth of humanistic ideals by giving emphasis to material differences instead of stressing human sameness. Many humanists have even talked about the necessity of prosecuting the class struggle, but how can one ask people to disregard class interests and then call upon one class to oppose another?

Human nature as an historic variable

The ethical assumptions of all varieties of what is called the humanistic socialist view are based on the fixity of human nature. They share this view with theological theorists, the difference being that the former hold that this basic human nature is good and the latter that it is bad. Marx denied that human nature can be placed in such absolute categories. Both Marx and Engels held that human nature was not an absolute constant but an historic variable. In fact, they always insisted that the "human nature" to which humanists and the clericalists appeal, each in their different ways, cannot serve as a guide to social organisation. It is not human nature which explains society, but society which explains human nature. There is no given human nature independent of time and place. There is only an historical human nature, that is a specific expression of human nature in a definite social context. To put it more precisely, to understand the nature of the human one must understand the nature of the society in which humans live. When we adopt such a criterion we discover that there is no immutable human nature, no homogeneous pattern to which a universal appeal can be made for the justification of concrete social questions. There can be no overall moral agreement or ethical unity in a social system split by class interests and antagonisms.

Class demands v. ethical neutrality

Contrary to what humanists believe, all ethics can be shown to have a class bias in a class system, and further there can be no genuine class ethic unless backed by class demands. That is why on concrete social issues one cannot appeal to "Man" or "the normal human". Neither is there some ethically neutral tribunal to which opposing class rights can be impartially referred

Capitalist society consists of buyers and sellers of labour-power. The worker as a seller of labour-power cannot assert his or her "right" to maintain or improve living standards via ethical appeal or moral law. Nor is the capitalist under a moral obligation to waive or even remit in any way the unpaid labour of the worker - profit - back in the form of increased wages. Not only has the capitalist a legal right to profit, but from his standpoint a moral right as well. Behind this moral right stands custom, tradition, religion, the classless ethic - and the State. As Marx points out in Capital, "There is here, therefore, an antimony, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides".

In a society such as capitalism, based on a permanent class conflict, there can be no genuine appeal to a neutral ethics. That is why Marx never invoked Humanity, Justice or Mercy as aqencies for solving social struggle. For the same reason he rejected the abstract classless morality of Kant and Christ. Morality for Marx is not eternal or natural but active and social. Morality to be genuinely effective must be based on needs, and in a class society on class needs. It is true that ethical ideals, like truth, duty, honour and human rights, acquire a seeming eternal form. But social analysis shows while the forms of these ideals are the same, their nature differs from social epoch to social epoch and from class to class. So if the question is posed: whose truth? whose duty? what human rights?, one will find in the answer a class standpoint. Crack the shell of a classless absolute ethic hard enough and the kernel of a class interest will be found. Marxist ethics do not invoke "Truth", "Duty" and "Altruism" but demand a state of affairs where these things have a different content from the existing ruling morality. Humility or self assertion, unselfishness or selfishness are themselves neither virtuous nor vicious; it is the actual social situation which gives them their truly moral quality.

The demand for the abolition of classes is a concrete class demand, engendered by a specific social situation. For the working class to be concerned with the plight of its "enemies" is itself a policy of despair whose ultimate logic is the perpetuation of capitalism. That is why we reject the classless ethic of religious theory and the school of bourgeois morality with its intuitive ethics based on the private individual. For such moral views turn out to be a disguised defence of the status quo.

Socialist Standard February 1989