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Socialist Morality: Towards a Political Philosophy for Democratic Socialism*

  • Daniel Little (a1)


There has been much discussion in recent years of the role of moral ideas within Marxism. Marx's stringent criticisms of purely philosophical inquiry impose rather narrow limits on the form which a Marxian moral philosophy might take. For Marx often holds that moral ideas and moral theorizing are irremediably ideological. By this Marx appears to mean that moral ideas are part and parcel of a system of class domination, a way of preserving class domination through internalized norms. As many recent commentators have shown, however, these criticisms of moral reasoning, though present in Marx's system, cannot be the beginning and end of his stance on moral matters. For Marx himself is committed to making normative judgments about capitalism and socialism, and there is a richly textured set of normative ideas that run through his writings from early to late. Further, and perhaps more compellingly, there is a pressing need internal to Marxism for discussion of moral ideas in order to steer the course towards the attainment of socialism.



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1 Brenkert, George, Marx's Ethics of Freedom (London: Routledge & Regan Paul, 1983); Wood, Allen, Karl Marx (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981); Lukes, Steven, Marxism and Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); Miller, Richard, Analyzing Marx (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); Przeworski, Adam, Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); John, Roemer, ed., Analytical Marxism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

2 Allen Wood, Karl Marx, pp. 141–5; Richard Miller, Analyzing Marx, pp. 45–50; George Brenkert, Marx's Ethics of Freedom, ch. 3; and Steven Lukes, Marxism and Morality, pp. 5–10.

3 George Brenkert provides the most extensive arguments in support of this view. “Marx's views on ideology and the justification of moral judgments also allow for a Marxist morality. This morality is not simply relativistic but one which is applicable to communist society as well as to previous societies” (Marx's Ethics of Freedom, p. 81). See also Little, Daniel, “Rationality, Ideology, and Morality in Marx's Social Theory,” Social Praxis, vol. 8 (1981), pp. 7388.

4 It should be noted that Wood and Miller dissent from this conclusion. Thus Wood writes, “Marx sees historical materialism as ‘breaking the staff of all morality’ by showing people the real reason why moral ideologies appeal to them” (Karl Marx, p. 156). Miller's dissent, however, appears to be semantic rather than substantive; he allows that Marxism needs a normative context, but denies that this context is a moral one because it is not universal, general, or neutral (Analyzing Marx, pp. 15–18).

5 Allen Wood, Karl Marx, pp. 22ff.

6 “Marx's Moral Realism: Eudaimonism and Moral Progress,” Ball and Farr, eds., After Marx, pp. 154–83.

7 Marx, Karl, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” ed. Quintin, Hoare, Karl Marx: Early Writings (New York: Vintage, 1975), pp. 322–34. Brenkert discusses this conception of freedom as self-determination at length in Marx's Ethics of Freedom, pp. 90–116, as does Brien, Kevin M. in Marx, Reason, and the Art of Freedom (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987).

8 Capital I (New York: Vintage, 1976), pp. 470–91. “[The capitalist division of labor] converts the worker into a crippled monstrosity by furthering his particular skill as in a forcing-house, through the suppression of a whole world of productive drives and inclinations” (p. 481). See also similar criticisms in Marx's “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” p. 285.

9 Consider, for example, Stalin's betrayal of Spanish communists, Chinese communists, etc., under the banner of “Socialism in one country.” Knei-Paz, Baruch offers an extensive description of this doctrine in The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 340–48.Carr, E.H. treats the self-serving policies which the Comintern imposed upon Spanish Communists in The Comintern & the Spanish Civil War (New York: Pantheon, 1984).

10 Isaac Deutscher illustrates some of these problems in the context of the early development of Bolshevism in his biography of Trotsky: The Prophet Unarmed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959). Arthur Koestler's recollections of the European Communist movement in the 1930s is of interest in this context as well: The Invisible Writing (New York: Stein and Day, 1984).

11 Shue, Vivienne provides a careful survey of the early part of this process in Peasant China in Transition: The Dynamics of Development toward Socialism, 1949–1956 (Berkeley: University of California, 1980).

12 Elizabeth Perry provides a glimpse of some of the political problems in the countryside which confront the current Chinese regime in “Rural Collective Violence: The Fruits of Recent Reforms,” eds. Elizabeth, Perry and Christine, Wong, The Political Economy of Reform in Post-Mao China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).

13 For an extensive discussion of some of the problems inherent in designing and pursuing a feasible socialism, see Nove, Alec, The Economics of Feasible Socialism (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983). “I should like to include in my own definition of ‘feasible socialism’ the notion that it should be conceivable within the lifespan of one generation – say, in the next fifty years…. I would add that for a society to be regarded as socialist one requires the dominance of social ownership in the economy, together with political and economic democracy” (p. 11). Nove's discussion makes extensive use of comparative examples of socialist programs: the Soviet model, Hungarian and Yugoslav models of socialist organization, and Allende's Chile.

14 It should be noted at the outset that this investigation is not intended to be a faithful explication of Marx's own moral views, but rather an effort to handle certain important normative problems making use of some of the guiding values of Marxian socialism. I no more presuppose that Marx's own writings unambiguously imply a resolution to the current problems of socialism than would a contemporary political philosopher working with the political theories of Kant or Locke. The aim is simply to offer credible and workable suggestions for socialist morality within a Marxian framework.

15 Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State,” ed. Quintin Hoare, Karl Marx: Early Writings, pp. 86–91. “In a democracy the constitution, the law, i.e. the political state, is itself only a self-determination of the people and a determinate content of the people” (p. 89).

16 Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” ed. Quintin Hoare, Karl Marx: Early Writings, pp. 326–33.

17 Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, “The Communist Manifesto,” ed. David, Fernbach, Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848 (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp. 7579. The same assumption about the universal interests of the proletariat may be found in the closing pages of Capital; Marx, Karl, Capital I (New York: Vintage, 1977), p. 929.

18 Marx, Karl, “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” ed. David, Fernbach, Karl Marx: The First International & After (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp. 354–55.

19 ibid., p. 355.

20 Recall Marx's similar comments about political emancipation and human emancipation in “On the Jewish Question,” ed. Quintin Hoare, Karl Marx: Early Writings, pp. 215–33. And in the Communist Manifesto he writes of the modern state in the following terms: “The executive of the modern [representative] state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto,” ed. David Fernbach, Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848, p. 69).

21 Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” p. 355.

22 Elster, Jon, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 448.

23 Though it is not my purpose to develop a theory of democratic socialism in this paper, I assume that such a system requires at least the following: universal suffrage; effective protections of the political rights of all citizens – the rights of free speech and association, the right to hold office, and protection from arbitrary punishment; and stable, predictable political institutions that embody universal suffrage and that subordinate policy formation to an electoral process.

24 Examples of all of these mechanisms may be found in the history of Chinese rural policies since 1949. See Perkins, Dwight and Yusuf, Shahid, Rural Development in China (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984) for details.

25 Similar questions arise in connection with long-term investment policies and inequalities among regions. Pranab Bradhan briefly considers these problems in “Marxist Ideas in Development Economics,” ed. John Roemer, Analytical Marxism, pp. 64–77, as does Elster, Jon's “Historical Materialism and Economic Backwardness,” eds. Terence, Ball and James, Farr, After Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 3658.

26 Dwight Perkins and Shahid Yusuf, Rural Development in China, pp. 115–19.

27 This is a problem with practical significance in cooperative farms, and Chinese policy makers have addressed it by trying to make estimates of the value of a given worker's day of work, including intensity, skill, strength, etc. For empirical discussion of this problem, see Louis Putterman, “The Restoration of the Peasant Household as Farm Production Units in China,” eds. Elizabeth Perry and Christine Wong, The Political Economy of Reform in Post-Mao China, pp. 63–82.

28 But briefly consider a slightly different case: strong and weak workers. The strong worker generates more output than the weak though well-motivated worker. Would we want to say that the weak exploits the strong in such a case?

29 This is a particularly obvious case: officials are using the coercive powers of the state to extract part of the economic surplus for their own luxury consumption. Roemer treats this type of case under the heading of status exploitation: the enrichment of the class of officials at the expense of the producers through the power of the state to tax. “New Directions in the Marxian Theory of Exploitation and Class,” pp. 109–10.

30 In comments on this paper, Chinese and Soviet academics have both rejected the premise that there can be such a thing as socialist exploitation. Igor Rogov, a philosopher at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute, argues that there can be no socialist exploitation because the workers and peasants own the means of production (personal communication). And Xi Wang, a senior economist at Fudan University, takes a similar line: “It is argued that under the socialist system, all the means of production are nationalized and the output of these nationalized means of production (including land) eventually benefit the people as a whole. The ‘exploitation’ only exists under a capitalist system where private ownership prevails” (personal communication). It is my position, however, that the state's capacity to employ coercive means to dispose of surplus product makes a prima facie case for the possibility of socialist exploitation.

31 Roemer, 's theory is presented in A General Theory of Exploitation and Class (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982). The main ideas of this theory are summarized in “New Directions in the Marxian Theory of Exploitation and Class,” ed. John Roemer, Analytical Marxism, pp. 81–113. Note also his arguments to the effect that exploitation is not the central moral issue in Marxism in “Should Marxists be Interested in Exploitation?”, ed. John Roemer, Analytical Marxism, pp. 260–82.

32 Roemer, “New Directions in the Marxian Theory of Exploitation and Class,” p. 86.

33 ibid., p. 103.

34 ibid., p. 109.

35 Roemer gives a more developed treatment of socialist exploitation in A General Theory of Exploitation and Class, chs. 7 and 8, but the discussion there too largely overlooks the process of socialist reform.

36 I restrict my attention to groups defined by economic criteria: principally occupation and region. This account is thus not intended to provide a basis for analysis of relations between ethnic or religious groups – let alone arbitrarily defined groups (e.g., members of sports clubs or subscribers to Newsweek).

37 John Roemer, “New Directions in the Marxian Theory of Exploitation and Class,” p. 110.

38 Note the formal parallel between this concept and Marx's analysis of concrete and abstract labor in Capital.

39 This reply depends on a baseline in which the Gansu peasant has possession of a per capita share of Gansu resources. But if the baseline is instead a per capita share of China's resources overall, then we are forced to conclude that the Gansu peasantry is being exploited; it is being deprived of the benefits of China's collective resources.

40 Even assuming full democratic rights, it is still possible for the majority to exploit a minority economic group. However, full rights of political participation would block many of the most egregious examples of socialist exploitation. This is so because the aim of socialist exploitation is to capture surpluses that can be used by the state for its programs. But the amounts of surpluses that can be squeezed from small groups of poor people (i.e., people close to the average per capita income line) are small enough to make such efforts by the state unlikely. Where a socialist state does have an a priori incentive to squeeze is in the case of large productive groups – peasants, miners, fishermen, etc. In these cases the surpluses that could be captured are large enough to be attractive. But these groups are also politically powerful if they have full rights of political participation and organization. So democratic institutions ought to block the most likely cases of socialist exploitation.

41 See Dwight Perkins and Shahid Yusuf, Rural Development in China, pp. 10–23, for an estimate of the overall balance of trade between urban and rural incomes within the Chinese economy. Their conclusion is that rural revenues provided only a very small portion of the revenues used for industrial development, either directly through taxation or indirectly through artificially low grain prices.

42 Steven Lukes, Marxism and Morality, pp. 65–66.

43 Likewise, George Brenkert argues, “I shall also argue that Marx rejected the notion of human or natural rights. Those rights claimed to be human rights are, he held, relative to capitalist society.” Brenkert, George, “Marx and Human Rights,” Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 24 (1986), p. 56.

44 Steven Lukes, Marxism and Morality, p. xii.

45 Adam Przeworski, “Material Interests, Class Compromise and the Transition to Socialism,” pp. 162–88.

46 ibid., pp. 178–81.

47 Baruch Knei-Paz offers extensive description of this tendency within Stalin's regime in The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky, pp. 367–441. Deutscher's The Prophet Unarmed is also informative on this point.

48 An important lesson of the early stages of the Chinese Revolution is the fact that the CCP was able to draw the mass of the peasantry along in pursuit of its program of socialist reform, through a combination of material incentives and a vision of a socialist future. Yung-fa Chen holds that the vision of the socialist future was a critical element in the Party's ability to broaden the political horizons of the peasantry. See Chen, Yung-Fa, Making Revolution (Berkeley: University of California, 1986), pp. 503–4. From a different perspective, A.K. Sen emphasizes the importance of non-material incentives in political behavior in a variety of works, including particularly “Rational Fools,” eds. Frank, Hahn and Martin, Hollis, Philosophy and Economic Theory (London: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 86109, and On Ethics and Economics (London: Basil Blackwell, 1987).

49 For further arguments to this conclusion, see Levine, Andrew, Arguing for Socialism (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), pp. 204–10.

50 David Fernbach, ed., The First International and After, p. 210.

51 See, for example, John Fairbank's description of some of the means used against Chinese dissidents in the 1930s by the Nationalist Government; on a grander scale, recall Chiang Kai-shek's extermination of the communist workers of Shanghai. See Fairbank, John, Chinabound: A Fifty-Year Memoir (New York: Harper, 1982), pp. 7882, and Fairbank, John, The Great Chinese Revolution 1800–1985 (New York: Harper, 1986), pp. 214–25.

52 I am abstracting from the possibility that the elite classes would themselves abandon parliamentary institutions when a socialist party appears on the brink of attaining power.

53 Miliband, Ralph, The State in Capitalist Society (New York: Basic, 1969); Ralph Miliband, Capitalist Democracy in Britain; Poulantzas, Nicos, Political Power and Social Classes (London: New Left Books, 1975); Adam Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy.

* I am grateful for comments received on earlier versions of this paper from Kenneth Winkler, Gerald Doppelt, Charles Beitz, and an anonymous reader for this journal.

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Socialist Morality: Towards a Political Philosophy for Democratic Socialism*

  • Daniel Little (a1)


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