How does Marx criticize capitalism? On what basis does he advocate socialism? Marx’s own account of these matters seems puzzling. On the one hand, he claims to be putting forward an objective and ‘scientific’ theory of history, a fundamental tenet of which is that moral values—including those of Marxism itself—are social and historical products. On the other hand, Marxism does not claim to be a ‘neutral’ or ‘value-free’ approach. It quite explicitly condemns capitalism and advocates socialism; a critical perspective is integral to it.

There has been a huge amount of controversy about these claims among ‘analytical Marxists’ in recent years.footnote1 Whatever their other differences, however, the great majority of these writers are agreed that these two aspects of Marx’s thought are incompatible. A social account of moral values of the kind given by Marx, it is said, leads inevitably to a form of social relativism which undermines the very possibility of a critical perspective. Marx’s condemnation of capitalism must involve an appeal to transhistorical values, whatever Marx himself may have thought. Then what we are offered in this literature are various ‘rational reconstructions’ of what transhistorical values Marx would have appealed to had he shared these views.

But he does not. Marx’s critical method is an immanent and historical one. It is based on the premiss that the grounds for a critical perspective are to be found in existing social conditions themselves. For actual societies are not harmonious unities. They contain within them conflicting groups and forces. Some of these support the established order; others oppose it. Social reality is contradictory. Negative and critical tendencies exist within it, they do not need to be brought from outside in the form of transcendent values: they are immanent within existing conditions themselves. Thus Marx’s social theory, so far from undermining his critical perspective, provides the basis on which it is developed and justified. My aim here is to describe and explain these ideas, and show how they can be defended against philosophical criticisms commonly brought against them.

Marx’s theory of history is familiar enough; nevertheless a brief account of it is necessary here as a prelude to the discussion that follows. According to this theory, social conflict gives rise to historical change. The existing social order is not stable or ultimate; it is destined eventually to perish. History takes the shape of a development through different stages, or modes of production. In the normal course of development, Marx maintains, feudal society is succeeded by capitalism, which will in turn give way to socialism. These stages are not simply a succession of different, discontinuous and incommensurable social forms. Rather, each new stage arises on the basis of the previous stage, as a result of forces and tendencies which have taken shape within it. Each new stage initially constitutes a progressive development, necessary for its time, and relative to the conditions which it supersedes. Yet each is only a transitory form which, in its turn, will ultimately perish and be replaced by the new, ‘higher’ and ‘more developed’ form which emerges out of it, on the basis of the conditions and as a result of the forces it creates.

This theory not only constitutes the framework for Marx’s account of history, it also provides the basis for his critical method. This does not appeal to transcendent standards; it is immanent, historical and relative in character. Relative to the feudal conditions which it replaces, capitalism constitutes a progressive, indeed revolutionary, historical development. From the perspective of capitalist society, feudal society, with its fixed hierarchy of ranks and privileges, appears oppressive and unjust. As the conditions for a higher socialist form of society take shape within it, however, capitalism increasingly becomes a fetter to further development. From the standpoint of this higher society—whose conditions are immanent in the present and increasingly make themselves felt—capitalist social relations appear to be a hindrance to human development and unjust. This standpoint—which emerges only with the development of capitalist society and is relative to it—provides the basis for Marx’s critique.

Marx’s conception of socialism is similarly historical and relative. It does not attempt to envisage an ideal future society on the basis of transcendent principles. For it does not regard socialism as the realization of a moral ideal, but rather as a concrete historical stage which will supersede capitalism, and which will be the outcome of forces which are at work within present capitalist society. ‘Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.’footnote2

There is a standard objection to this approach, and it runs as follows. A theory of history of this sort cannot provide a valid basis for moral values. To imagine that moral conclusions can be derived from a theory of historical progress is to commit a version of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’: the fallacy of trying to get evaluative conclusions from factual premises.footnote3 Geras puts the matter clearly as an either/or choice. Either Marx’s concept of progress is a ‘neutral’ notion, equivalent to ‘what will come next’; in which case it is a ‘morally vacuous notion’ that carries no evaluative implications. ‘That something is going or probably going to happen, does not show why, or that, it should be valued or fought for. It may be, and historically all too often is, spectacularly unpleasant.’ Alternatively, the idea of progress is a morally substantive one; in which case it must tacitly embody certain values. These values, if they are to enable ‘comparative historical evaluations’ to be made, must appeal to ‘transhistorical criteria’, ‘universal evaluative standards’, for these are ‘an obvious requirement of any morally substantive concept of progress’.footnote4