Sometimes I feel I’m constantly coming across people who either confuse Marxism with a moral stand on how evil capitalism is, or they do the opposite and claim that Marxists have no morals. This even happens with people who have read at least some of his writings. They either point to the parts where he attacks the capitalists and their evil system at length or to parts of his writings that appear to be a cold, distanced analysis of the nature of capitalism.
It is actually quite easy to clear up this issue. Engels expressed the solution in a clear manner in his introduction to Marx’s “Poverty of Philosophy.” Many socialists at the time emphasised the evils and immorality of capitalism. For Marx (and Engels) this muddied the waters. The objective fact of the matter was that the capitalist economic framework, by its very nature, meant the exploitation of a large section of society by a smaller section. This type of exploitation always led to an increasing exploitation of the mass of society to maintain the profits of the minority. Without these profits this minority could not exist. In a very real, material way they were totally dependent on it. So under capitalism circumstances would always force these two sections (or classes) to clash. The ruling class needed to increasingly exploit the larger, working class. Conversely this would mean the working class having to constantly fight off being pauperised and fight for a decent standard of living. This will happen irrespective of whether the capitalists are ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ There may even be some with good intentions who try to alleviate the conditions of the working class but ultimately the economic framework will force them down the road of exploitation. These are the objective facts for Marx and all Marxists since that time.
Irrespective of an individual’s moral position this clash of classes will always happen under capitalism. Having identified the nature of capitalism the next obvious question to ask is, “what, if anything, should we do about it?” The capitalists’ response is a shrug of the shoulders, “that’s just the way the world is.” For Marx and others the answer to this question is, “if left to itself capitalism will destroy the human race, so we need to replace it with something else.” This obviously leads to the further question of what to replace it with and how to do it. At this point a morality comes in — a revolutionary morality based on necessity. For Marxists morality is a practical issue. Our morals are based on what is necessary in the class struggle to achieve socialism. It’s not a case of ‘anything goes.’ Our morality in our personal and public lives is defined by our aims. For example, our attitudes towards sexual equality are determined by the struggle for socialism. Without this type of equality socialism will be impossible. So we must promote it and encourage it as much as we can — not just as a policy but in our personal lives as well. Full equality is not possible until socialism is achieved but we should lay the ground work for this as much as possible now.
This is not a cynical, coldly calculated position. It comes from recognising that, for the masses, solidarity is not just a tactic to win concessions from the capitalists. This solidarity requires not only treating all as equal in the struggle but is also a natural part of how the class lives in its day to day existence. Its natural position is more about co-operation than competition, i.e. in the final analysis its members have to pull together in order to survive. Although people lose sight of this at times it is deeply ingrained social conditioning. So when people become more aware of the need for equality it is not just seen as a shirt to put on temporarily — it is seen as something that makes you a fuller person. So the call for sexual equality is both a political demand and a heartfelt plea.
Now we can return to the beginning of this piece. We can now understand how some parts of Marx’s writings can appear ‘cold’ analysis whilst in other parts he fumed and raged against the oppressors. The ‘cold’ writings are a careful analysis of the nature of capitalism. The ‘emotional’ writings are those that have moved on to answering the question, “what shall we do about it?”