Marx’s vision of communism is of a society that has transcended morality. Such a society is not only impracticable but inconceivable, since social and moral conflict requiring the arbitration of ethical rules will be an invariant feature of any human community however saintly one assumes its individuals to have become. Marxism therefore rests on a conceptual incoherence that renders the ‘higher’ society to which it aspires an indefensible social and political goal. Such, in essence, is the argument at the centre of Steven Lukes’s Marxism and Morality. footnote1 A similarly negative verdict is delivered on the book’s subsidiary concern: the record of Marxism as a practice and the arguments adduced in support of that practice. Here, too, Lukes finds the Marxist position deeply flawed, indeed vitiated by its disdain for the ‘humanism’ with which liberals have approached the question of ‘means and ends’, and by its generally cavalier attitude to matters of morality. There is, of course, nothing very new in the general substance of these charges. That Marxism is deficient, if not downright unscrupulous, in its approach to morality is, after all, one of the most frequently cited reasons for rejecting its doctrine. At the same time, many of those who are sympathetically inclined to the political argument of Marxism have found much to trouble them in this area. Indeed, the question of Marx’s and Marxism’s attitude to morality, and whether it constitutes a ‘strength’ or a ‘weakness’, has from the outset been a major bone of contention among Marxists, one might even say the key issue around which the interpretative disputes splitting the Marxist camp have perennially revolved. Nor does anyone need reminding of the traumatic impact upon these debates of the disasters perpetrated and legitimated in the name of Marxism.

Yet if the fundamental arguments pursued in Marxism and Morality have little novelty in themselves, they are formulated by Lukes with a precision and directness that are not so common. And they are presented with an understanding and appreciation of the strengths of the Marxist reasoning that makes the case moved against its acceptance the more commanding of respect. There is, moreover, a certain opportuneness about this book, appearing as it does in a climate of opinion less susceptible than that of a decade ago to the lure of an ‘anti-humanist’ Marxism and more ready to allow questions of ethics to emerge from the penumbra of their structuralist and post-structuralist eclipse. Nor is it simply a case of growing scepticism about these erstwhile wisdoms. There is also abroad, one senses, a new openness towards dimensions of Marxist argument that cannot be disconnected from the discussion of morality, but which, unlike the latter, have received rather scant consideration. I have in mind here the greater readiness to query longaccepted nostrums about communism (as a society of ‘abundance’, of ‘rich individuality’, of ‘distribution according to need’, etc.) and to ask what precisely it is that these formulae, which have tripped so lightly off the Marxist tongue for so long, can mean and imply. I am thinking also of a new preparedness in certain sections of the left to challenge the orthodox Marxist veto on blue-printing; to ask whether the dismissal of ‘utopian socialism’, together with its ‘moralism’ and its ‘nostalgic–romantic’ hesitations about industrialism, has not worked in certain ways to the disadvantage of Marxist aspirations: for has it not provided reasons to evade a whole range of questions (about needs, the political role of moral feeling, the ecological and human consequences of industrial expansion) that must command the attention of anyone seriously interested in promoting socialism today? Or again, I am thinking of recent attempts footnote2 to spell out the kind of economic and political institutions that would go into the making of any authentically socialist society—endeavours which call in question the further tendency, undeniably present in Marx’s writing, to portray communism as transcending not only morality but the domain of politics itself.

For all these reasons, then, Luke’s book is to be welcomed even if, in my case, it is with some regrets: first, that so little attempt is made to link its argument to these other debates and agendas, or to offer any positive speculations about the kind of practices and institutions that would be essential to any realizable socialist or communist form of existence; secondly (as should emerge more clearly in what follows) that it pays so little attention to the ‘Marxisms’ that share their name with the orthodoxy it is attacking even as they depart so widely from that in their approach to questions of moral and political responsibility.

Lukes begins where any unprejudiced reading of Marx is likely to begin, with an acknowledgement of what he calls the ‘paradoxical’ stance of Marxism towards morality: on the one hand, it presents morality as nothing more than bourgeois prejudice, a form of ideology that is social in origin, illusory in content, and serving class interests; on the other hand, Marxism continually implies and often explicitly invokes moral concepts and categories in its critique of capitalism and advocacy of communism. ‘From his earliest writing,’ says Lukes, ‘where Marx expresses his hatred of servility through the critique of alienation and the fragmentary visions of communism in the Paris Manuscripts and The German Ideology, to the excoriating attacks on factory conditions and the effects of exploitation in Capital, it is plain that Marx was fired by outrage and indignation and the burning desire for a better world that it is hard not to see as moral.’ footnote3 And yet Marx just as constantly suggests that all moralizing and moral vocabulary must be expunged as unscientific and prejudicial to proletarian revolution. Nor is such inconsistency simply a quirk of Marx; it is equally to be found (as Lukes amply illustrates) in the position of Engels, of Lenin, of Trotsky, and indeed of the Marxist tradition in general, where passionate denunciation of the evils of capitalism has always combined with equally fiery polemics against ‘all ethical standpoints’.

Few, I think, would want to dispute the existence of this ‘paradox’, and Lukes’s assessment of the material assembled in evidence of it is generally compelling. My only reservation concerns the pertinence to any interpretation of Marx’s writing on ethical issues of the distinction—acknowledged by Lukes but never fully explored footnote4 —between ‘morality’ and ‘moralism’. For one can uphold ‘morality’, that is, one can have a general belief in the importance and validity of moral values and judgements, without committing oneself to the ‘moralism’ of those who assume that adherence to moral values is in itself sufficient to their realization. There is no space here to argue the point in detail, but my own sense is that there are certain texts of Marx which have commonly been taken as indicative of outright rejection of morality, where the burden of the attack is not so much upon the holding of moral positions themselves but upon the idealist conception that it is values themselves which determine the extent to which they are realized in practice. Thus, for example, the charge brought against Stirner’s ‘egoism’ or the pieties of Feuerbach and the ‘True’ socialists in The German Ideology is not so much that any and every moral concept is of its nature ideological, but that it is ideological (and the classic move of Hegelian idealism) to treat all actual struggles and conflicts as if they involved no more than a clash of moral concepts and were resoluble within the realm of ideas alone. This is not to deny that if Marx had meant us to understand that his attack was not against morality as such but against the idealist overestimation of its powers to change the world, then he should have said so much more explicitly than he did, and offered an altogether more qualified discourse about morality. It is only to insist that there may be some places at least where Marx and Engels are being condemned for condemning morality when what is really under attack is ‘the vain intrusion of moral judgements in lieu of casual understanding’, footnote5 as Perry Anderson has put it—a formula I would be prepared to accept providing it is made clear that moral feeling and judgement have themselves an efficacy and that their causative role and specific effects must form part of any concept of ‘causal understanding’.

In the end, however, what is at issue is less the interpretation of this or that particular text than the overall imputation of inconsistency, which I would not wish to contest. Nonetheless, it is, Lukes tells us, only an apparent inconsistency, since it is ultimately explicable in terms of a distinction (which, it is implied, Marx was consistent in drawing) between a morality of Recht, which he condemned, and a morality of ‘human emancipation’, which he approved. Drawing on texts such as On the Jewish Question, where the doctrine and rhetoric of the rights of man are denounced as ideological, and their merely ‘political emancipation’ opposed to the genuinely ‘human emancipation’ that consists in freedom from Recht and from the conditions of bourgeois society which call it into being, Lukes argues that the Marxist critique of morality is essentially a critique of Recht: an exposure of the socially derivative nature of so-called natural rights and of their ideological service in maintaining and defending the divisive, egoistic and utilitarian relations of bourgeois society. Recht, in short, from the Marxist point of view, is simply a means of stabilizing certain relations of production by presenting the interests they serve in the guise of eternal principles of justice, equality and fraternity, principles which therefore can have no rationally compelling force for Marxists. footnote6 We should recognize furthermore, says Lukes, that in the attack on Recht Marx is also rejecting the almost universally held assumption that, given the inherently conflictual nature of human societies, moral principles function as a necessary constraint on human conduct. ‘It is a peculiar and distinctive feature of Marxism,’ he writes, ‘that it denies the conditions of Recht inherent in human life—denies that scarcity, egoism and social and moral antagonisms are invariant features inherent in the human condition.’ Hence, he goes on, ‘Marxism is virtually innocent of any serious consideration of all the inter-personal and intra-personal sources of conflict and frustration that cannot, or can no longer, plausibly be traced even remotely to class divisions.’ footnote7

It is unfortunate, however, that Lukes does not spell out certain distinctions that would have enabled his reader to know exactly what construction was to be put on these arguments. For the claim that societies must necessarily embody antagonistic social relations is one thing; the claim that all sources of inter-personal conflict are eliminable is another. Moreover, even if we suppose that Marx adhered to both, I do not see why that in itself justifies the conclusion that Marx conceived of communism as a society dispensing with all principles of equity and justice. That Marx rejected the idea that antagonistic social relations were an essential feature of any human community (and with it the view that civil and political institutions serve a primary ‘policing’ function) is undoubtedly true. Indeed it is definitional of Marxism that the conflicts which the tradition of liberal political theory made accountable to ‘human nature’ are social in origin—and therefore removable in principle. Repudiating any Hobbesian conception, historical materialism assumes instead, as its premise, the possibility of what Sartre has called ‘reciprocity’ in human relations. One can certainly challenge this assumption, but it would clearly be begging the question to do so inductively by pointing to the fact that conflict has been a feature of all societies hitherto, since Marx himself would be the first to agree while insisting that nothing followed from that as to the possibility of alteration in the future. It is, in short, of the essence of the Marxist case that the major antagonisms of society have their root in forms of economic exploitation that can—and ought to—be removed. To speak, for example, of ‘scarcity’ as if it were an ineradicable and universal obstacle to the removal of conflict seems perverse in a world where the subsistence needs of some are only denied because of the excessive consumption of others and the massive waste of resources on a superfluity of arms.