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Marxism and the Problem of Motivation

Why should you be a Marxist? Marx can’t give you a reason.

The poetics of the Communist Manifesto were published during the twilight of King Louis Phillipe’s reign in France. In 1848, when revolution struck within the same month of the Manifesto’s publication, many might have reasonably believed that the so-called spectre of Communism was truly manifesting itself throughout the European continent. Of course, the ascension of Louis Napoleon rid any possible proletariat seizure of the French government, as he claimed the presidency for life and the Emperorship by 1852.

However, for the Marxian worldview, nothing changed. The historical analysis could not have been flawed. All was a stepping stone toward the fall of capitalism — and many believed it. The Mensheviks saw it as their responsibility to wait for the inevitable, rather than take part in a revolution; Stalin’s “iron laws of history” certainly agreed, and so to Althusserian efforts to make Marxism a science. Yet, many do not fit this passive picture.

Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks took part in revolution, Mao enveloped China in a murderous cultural strategy, and Third-World Marxists employed a radicalism that hoped to stretch beyond Marx. However, for all of these groups, there stands a difficult question; namely, how could Marxism motivate their actions?

Marxism, understood as the socio-political theory finding its origins in the literature of Marx (both early and late), is an astounding descriptive analysis of (post)industrial societies. There are a number of suggestions and gestures toward the direction one might take the pages of the theory, but are there reasons why we ought to do anything at all (and if so on what grounds)? This is the question with which this essay will be primarily concerned; namely, can Marxism as a theory account for prior moral commitments as it stands as a descriptive theory?

This is clearly a challenge for any theory that claims — as Marxism does — to have an ethics that is contingent. What value could be assumed or derived if value as such depends on historical circumstance in a way that would motivate long standing adherence (e.g., revolution) to the theory; more precisely, what value could be posited as both non-transient and relative? This question, of course, is rhetorical. There can be no such value.

But, as we will see, the Marxian understanding of value faces two major problems that need addressing: the problem of motivation and the problem of moral progress.

The former can be briefly described as the problem that arises from the fact that even if we can accept all of the Marxian analyses and explanations as true, we have no discursive reason to take up any particular cause at all. The latter is the problem by which all contingent ethics suffers: how can it explain the fact that we think we have made moral progress, and that we currently fight for such progress.

We will examine both of these problems in detail, and consider some possible solutions to each. However, it is worth noting that what is not a solution to the problems that arise from this contingent ethic in Marxism is the introduction of normativity or a normative theory. Either the Marxist has to admit there is no normativity couched into the theory, or abandon the notion of contingent values based on historical circumstance. That, to me, seems a fait accompli.

In our exploration we will see how Marxism might operate in the realm of ethics without normative claims and consider what it looks like to be a Marxist given that fact (if that is even a coherent item by the end). In a word, I will argue Marxism — insofar as the theory maintains a contingent ethics — cannot have a normative ethics, and can therefore not solve either of the problems posed

We will begin with a discussion of Marxism as a descriptive theory and normativity, followed by an outline of the problems that arise from a contingent ethics, some possible ways out of the problem posed (with an analysis of these responses), and a conclusion. It is worth emphasizing that this is not an analysis of The Frankfurt School, The Binghamton School of Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, or any additive theories that expanded on Marx’s writings.

To begin, let us consider Marxism as a descriptive theory, and obtain a better understanding of what a normative system provides.

Marxism is usually understood best as a descriptive theory, as it attempts to account for sociological phenomena in that it explains how and why a set of characteristics or a pattern exist. This type of theory, however, does not tell us what we ought to do with these facts, or even how we ought to think about them. That is the job of a normative theory.

The normative theory and the problem of motivation

If, then, we understand Marxism as a descriptive theory, we can begin to see how it operates along this socio-economic descriptive lens. There are certain historical circumstances that have always resulted in class struggle, alienation from labor explains the estrangement of the worker, an undeveloped class consciousness explains away why the worker might vote against her interests in the political process, etc., etc.

But it should not be hard to notice that none of these facts alone provide any impetus regarding what one must do with them. It requires a value judgement to discern a proper course of action. The mere fact that a painting is beautiful does not tell me why I should buy it — I must first value beauty.

To determine what is worth valuing, one must have a theory of value. But even this does not tell us enough! If we want a theory to tell us how to act we need a normative ethics that serves as a code — couched in virtue, deontology, consequentialism, or what have you — such that we can apply that code and govern our behavior off of it; i.e., it can tell us what we ought to do given certain specified conditions.

We can also, given this normativity, praise certain behavior and denounce others such that it further motivates adherence. In a word, a normative theory claims to justify maxims discursively such that they are shown to be “rationally obligatory or objectively valid.”

So if we posit (and endorse) a moral claim that reads you should not punch your sister in the face — due to a particular notion of normative theory (it is rational to avoid violence and rationality is a virtue, you have a duty not to harm your sister, this is not conducive to attaining the greatest happiness, etc.) — we have reason to avoid that behavior when we come to interact with her. Of course merely explaining the fact that your sister is harmed when she is punched does not say anything about what is obligatory to do or think given that situation of interaction.

In the case of both early and late Marx, we are left in the abyss of the latter — we only have a description.

It is not that Marx was unaware of this fact; however, he simply “takes for granted that, at the right historical moment, circumstances will be such that large numbers of people will be motivated to undertake revolutionary change” — with no need for a precise normative theory. How this might occur we are left with very little. This is the vast crater that separates Marxism from the French Utopists like Fourier and Saint-Simon; the latter had a precise method of producing their ends, the former merely explains what will inevitably come.

The real issue of Marxism’s not having a normative theory, according to what is found in the descriptive theory of Marx, is that there is no reason to hold any particular value judgement at all.

That is, you could accept all of the Marxian analyses and explanations as true, but still have no discursive reason to take up the cause of the proletariat over the aristocrats, or any cause at all for that matter. This is what I will call the problem of motivation.

From here the Marxist has two options: (i.) reject this claim and rely on what ethical structure can be salvaged from Marx’s writings, or (ii.) accept the notion that a class conscious capitalist is just as much a Marxist as anyone, insofar as she takes the descriptive theory of Marxism to be true and thereby uses it as evidence to her schema. If we accept option two (ii.), the story ends and you must draw your value judgements, as it were, at random and without justification. If we settle upon option one (i.), then we must further investigate what ethic there might be, and see if this can help us avoid option two.

But still, Marx clearly had normative opinions (as we will see) and indeed made a vast claim about values or morals; namely, that value judgments are fundamentally related to social-epochal conditions from which they appear. Moreover, we will work under the assumption that the Marxist does not want to concede the point presented in option two (ii.). This might very well lead one to refute option two outright, and necessarily lead us to seek out option one; we will assume the Marxist does not want to concede to option two.

The question is, how exactly is the Marxist contingency claim presented — in the vocabulary Marx would endorse — and to what extent does it allow us to avoid or exasperate this problem of motivation?

Marx’s writings are riddled with sentences and concepts that walk along the edges of normativity, but never pass into its unique realm. He clearly has some prior commitment to a set of morality — how else could he side with the proletariat or oblige us to establish a dictatorship of the worker?If he did not, we would be back at the problem that arose at the end of the last section; namely, there are no prescribed value judgements able to be extracted from Marxism such that there is no reason to take up any particular cause.

Although we are left with very little of Marx’s own words on ethics, scholars have been able to present his views on the ethical in a fairly agreed-upon way. And, instead of relying on the scraps of normative claims we can piece together from Marx’s writings in The German Ideology, On the Jewish Question, and The Communist Manifesto, we will rely on the work of Howard Selsam.

Selsam presented the Marxian contingent ethic as the following: “1) moral values change; 2) they change in accordance with society’s productive forces and its economic relations; and 3) values at any given time are those of the dominant economic class.”

Thus, values for Marx are contingent on socio-historic circumstance; that is, there is nothing universal or transcendental about morality. Moreover, claiming something as “good” or “just” or “bad” or “unjust” today might not apply in 100 years from now — or even ten!

Thus, can it be that there is no certainty about how you ought to feel about a given situation; does not the Marxist want to say that exploitation of labor, for example, is something to always be avoided, to be condemned? Or is that in some later period exploitation will possibly be good and appropriate? This would seem to further the issue posed at the end of section one, not account for it. At the moment, then, we have no solution to the problem of motivation.

This all is closely related with another issue; namely, that of moral progress. Contingency allows us to throw up our hands toward the feet of the dominant economic class (which was produced by material-economic forces), and indeed explains for the various shifts in intellectual history in relation to various socio-economic set-ups, including Hellenistic Greece and Feudal England. But is this the genealogy of morality we want to subscribe to?

This claim might be easier to accept looking at times past; gladiatorial battles, crucifixion, slavery, women’s suffrage. However, looking forward, this claim is grim, and unlikely to be the kind of thing anyone would want to endorse, as there is no room for moral progress.

It is not for the fact that we have cultivated a better sense of ethical understanding, says Marx, but instead the result of material forces. Yet, when we march at a political rally, lobby for a piece of legislation, look back on other historical periods to learn from, we are doing so out of the implicit understanding that we are moving toward political, social, moral progress. That is, moral progress seems ubiquitous in our psychology — when we take part in activism, we believe we are pushing for progress.

We would have to do away with this idea such that 18th century Georgia — slave trade and all — is not any better off from an ethical standpoint than Georgia today, insofar as it is merely a product of economic relations. But no philosopher wants to endorse this, so how might the Marxist solve this issue, this problem of moral progress?

The contingent ethics, as we found out, was not a solution to the problem of motivation, but in fact a worsener of it; what’s more, it brought forth a new problem (the one of progress). So currently, we have identified two problems that face Marxism on, or found in, the ethical plane: the problem of motivation and the problem of moral progress.

The former asks what could motivate the theory such that there really are prior moral commitments that the Marxist maintains and the latter asks what we should make of moral progress. Both of these stem from the nature of the theory (non-normative) and the contingency of the ethics.

What are some possible solutions?

Bertell Ollman proposes an answer to the question posed by the problem of motivation by framing the discussion around a fact-value gap — one where to know something (to really know something) contains within that knowing an attitude about that thing. Ollman writes:

“If we defined “fact” as a statement of something known to have happened or knowable, and “value” as that property in anything for which we esteem or condemn it, then, he would maintain that in knowing something (certainly in knowing it well) we already either esteem or condemn.”

This, however, is confused and does not help us solve the issue. The phenomenological account of ethical inquiry does not begin with a predisposed attitude about a thing — then there would be no inquiry at all! What would it mean to inquire about how we should judge or value, say, the killing of animals, if by knowing what it is to kill an animal already instantiates our attitude toward it? We would never have to pause and ask ourselves the value (goodness) of an action; we would already know by virtue of simply knowing the action itself.

This, of course, is not the phenomenological account of ethical judgement that anyone should recognize. Instead, we say that we “suspend all judgements” (much like the ancient Skeptics, though not like the Pyrronians) before concluding upon how we value an action, usually upholding it to some standard found in our normative system.

Of course this thought about so-called intuitive moral attitudes is not unique to scholars trying to ascribe an ethics to Marx. The moral philosopher Robert Audi, in his work Rights, Reasons, and Values, proposes a theory of moral intuitionism which sounds much like Ollman’s proposal, and is therefore worth pausing to consider briefly.

The argument he presents is one for a realist account of moral intuitionism in which there are moral facts or axioms that are intuitive (as a mental event) and non-inferential. Moreover, these facts contain through these intuitions a prima facie justification for believing the moral proposition intuited from a perceived event in a given context.

But, of course, there is no moral situation with which judgement does not rely on the inference to an axiom. For example, Audi uses a situation in which an individual promises to mail a letter for a friend, only to soon after throw the letter away. Audi wants to say that we can achieve moral knowledge non-inferentially merely by observation, and conclude there was wrongdoing by the person who promised to mail and then threw the letter away.

However, any evaluation that there is wrongdoing done by the individual who threw the letter-to-be-mailed away requires first to understand — and thereby make inference to — the axiomatic concept or proposition of “promise-breaking is morally wrong.”

What’s more, it is completely implausible to suggest we can derive prima facie justification from context, as it is entirely likely that we come across contexts we do not fully understand; e.g., the envelope of the letter might have been laced with a poisonous substance such that the person who threw the promised letter away actually saved another person’s life.

Therefore, it seems like claims to moral intuitionism, as non-normative intuitive attitudes, of any sort — although promising — will not help the Marxist here.

Brian Leiter attempts to save Marx by claiming he was simply a Humean about motivation. That is, it’s not for the proper normative theory that would motivate revolution, but instead “misery, privation, need are quite sufficient to motivate behavior.”

Leiter draws on Marx’s description of how capitalism will eventually fall in The German Ideology, where Marx uses the qualities of mass immiseration, worldwide capitalism, and a large population of properyless individuals as the mixture that makes the cocktail. The mere existence of these factors results like some ontological equation in revolution of the proletariat. How this might occur in any detail, I can not offer a guess, but only say that it is assumed they will spontaneously, after fully grasping the causal relations of production “agitate for change.”

This assumption rests on the fact that we as people are moved about like Newtonian atoms in Euclidean space. This is faulty, as it does not account for individual psychology, but only mass class consciousness such that individuals have a residual attitude of hopelessness that comes from recognizing ultimate oppression by the socio-economic forms of the ruling class.

But individuals do not spontaneously erupt with moral attitudes, nor do they come to them without inference to some axiom. The mere fact that people have desires that they want to satisfy does not tell us enough; the Marxist must tell us why they would choose to satisfy their desires in the particular way they imagine it.

That is, the fact that the capitalist-industrialist system and bourgeois class is causing mass immiseration does not say why one would revolt and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, appropriate the capitalist system for their own sake, or beg the bourgeoisie to be merciful. If it is all merely instrumental insofar as the desires are satisfied, then it doesn’t matter how they are actually satisfied. Therefore, the attempt to recall Hume does not help here either, because the “how”here is predicated on value judgements.

At this point, we are still in the same position as we were when we began. Given the constraints put on by both the non-normative nature insisted by the theory, and the contingent claim, we can say Marxism can not account for prior moral commitments. Another way, prior moral commitments or value judgements are unjustified by the theory.

What about moral progress?

It follows necessarily that from a non-normative contingent ethics, progress is not a coherent item. It is a matter of logic that progress can not be determined or evaluated in a contingent ethics, as this requires a universal ideal to be used as a standard through which one can compare epochs; but we have already said there can be no such ideal in Marxism. Therefore, progress can not be accounted for.

Thus it seems neither the problems of motivation nor progress can be addressed by the Marxist insofar as she draws solely from the writings of Marx. There needs to be supplementary work done. But, of course, that risks stepping too far away from the Marxian worldview. Now that we have shown through investigation that both problems seem to be unanswerable, we may now say a word in conclusion.

This paper was not an attempt to display Marxism’s “fatal flaw” or entail some absurd consequence such that perhaps no one will ever be a Marxist again. Marxism still functions perfectly as a descriptive theory.

However, what this essay did attempt to show, are some serious problems with the theory with regard to its motivating factors. That is, I, after a discussion of descriptive and normative theories, attempted to present first a general problem that stems from the non-normative nature of Marxism (the problem of motivation), but also a subsidiary problem that arises from the contingency claim in combination with these non-normative features (the problem of progress).

We defined each problem as a question; namely, how does the Marxist account for the prior moral commitments she wants to hold (e.g., siding with the proletariat, etc.) if, given merely a descriptive theory, you have no normative-discursive reason to take up any particular cause at all, and how does the Marxist account for moral progress given the contingency claim?

After proposing some solutions to the problems — one by Ollman, one by Audi’s intuitionism, and one by recalling Hume — we yet found no answer to the problem posed by the problem of motivation. Moreover, the notion of moral progress, without an answer to the problem of motivation and the contingency claim, is not possible to obtain in the theory.

In this way, Warren Buffet is no less a Marxist than Adorno, insofar as they both seem to take Marx’s theory to be true. So much for Lenin and his Bolsheviks, Mao, or Third-World Marxists; it seems then, the Mensheviks, Stalin’s “iron laws of history”, and Althusserian analytics were the true Marxists!

Marxism, understood as the writing of early and late Karl Marx, is an impressive collection of scientific analyses that turns materialism into economics, idealism into fiction, and capitalism into something diagnosable. However, for all its virtues, it is left wanting in providing an ethical standard by which to motivate the prior moral commitments it wants the adherent to hold — and that must be addressed within the theory to remain orthodox, or outside of it as an adaptation.

Anthony DiMauro is a freelance writer in New York City. J.D. Candidate. NYU philosophy alum. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyMDiMauro