Is Marxism “leftist”?

Kate Woolford explores a marxist approach to leftist morality.
Kate Woolford explores a marxist approach to leftist morality.
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A Marxist approach to leftist moralism. 

Many self-styled communists view Marxism-Leninism more as a set of moral and ethical values than a science firmly grounded in material reality. To them, Marxism is the ultimate embodiment of liberal and ‘progressive’ values, while those with more conservative values are nothing more than ‘chauvinists’ who should be excluded from the cause. 

However, this moral interpretation of Marxism is inconsistent with Marx’s own understanding, which asserts that the driving force behind human society is contradictions between classes, rather than a moral dichotomy of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. In this respect, Marx did not abstract capitalism outside of its historical context but instead showed that it could be both historically progressive and regressive depending on its stage of development. Within its early stages, the progressive nature of capitalism is tied up with its need to constantly revolutionise the instruments of production, the relations of production, and therefore also the whole relations of society. This, in turn, replaces the scattered, less-effective feudal mode of production with capitalist production and allows production to be carried out at an unprecedented scale. Nevertheless, as capitalism matures, and the proletariat grows into a fully developed class concentrated together in huge numbers, a contradiction arises between the social process of production and the private ownership of production. 

The contradictions inherent within capitalism are demonstrated through recurrent crises, during which huge amounts of goods and machinery are needlessly destroyed and wasted. Capitalism’s incompatibility with the future development of society can only result in a revolution led by the class capable of bringing about a higher mode of production, that is, the modern working class. Therefore, the inevitability of the socialist revolution is not tied up in capitalism’s moral shortcomings, but on the objective laws governing the development of human society. 

In a similar vein, Engels criticised, “every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate, and forever immutable moral law on the pretext that the moral world too has its permanent principles which transcend history and the differences between nations”, and disapproved of a theory of morals “designed to suit all periods, all peoples, and all conditions” arguing that “precisely for that reason it is never and nowhere applicable.” Both Marx and Engels upheld that the communist movement unified workers based on the material conditions of their life; their nation, their workplace, and their commonly experienced exploitation as proletarians, not on the basis of a shared set of moral values.

Therefore, those within the communist movement who uphold their personal morals as eternally and indisputably correct, or, even worse, seek to elevate their personal morals to the position of communist morals in general, clearly do not view morals in a materialist way. Nor do they approach it in an anti-imperialist way, with notions of moral superiority giving way to imperialist interventions on the countries alleged to be morally inferior, often on the basis of their cultural and religious values.

What is Marxism?

Marx understood that changes in society, like changes in the natural world, are far from accidental and follow certain laws. This understanding made it possible to work out a scientific theory of human society; to study why it is the way it is, why it changes, and what changes are to come. The scientific method of Marxism, dialectical materialism, regards the world as both a living organism in a state of constant development and composed of matter existing beyond human perception. 

Like all sciences, Marxism is based on the material world around us. Therefore, it is not a finished theory or a dogma, but must be continuously applied to new conditions, new problems, and new discoveries to draw from them the correct conclusions. The value of Marxism lies in its ability to form conclusions capable of changing the world, just as all scientific discoveries can be used to change the world. 

Defining Left and Right 

While Marxism historically belongs to the definite left tradition, that is, it finds much of its origins in the Jacobin radical left of the French Revolution, today’s leftism is understood more as an indefinite set of moral values than a clearly defined ideology. 

Delineating what values belong to the left and what values belong to the right is a challenging task given that these terms mean different things within different contexts. One study found that conservatism can be associated with a left-wing or right-wing orientation depending on the cultural, political, and economic situation of the society in question. Another study found that, within the former Soviet republics, “traditionalism, rule-following, and needs for security are more strongly associated with the old (left-wing) ways of doing things than with right-wing preferences. It is also possible that openness would be associated with a right-wing political orientation in Eastern Europe, rather than with a left-wing orientation, as in the West.” In other words, in the former Soviet republics, the Soviet Union is often associated with values the West considers to be right-wing. 

In this respect, understandings of left and right are subjective and vary widely depending on time and place. Therefore, it is important to clarify that this article will be considering values associated with modern “leftism” in the West today. The cultural values considered in this article are liberation through love, openness, and equal rights, and the policy matters considered are equality, government intervention, and high taxes. 

Love and inclusivity

Notions of love as an all-liberating force find popularity among leftists, an outlook prevalent among 18th and 19th-century philosophers and revitalised during the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 70s. Engels, however, criticised the “religion of love” and, in the End of Classical German Philosophy, denounced Feuerbach’s idea that mankind could be liberated through love alone instead of the economic transformation of production. To Engels, the idea that love could function as a reconciling force for all differences “regardless of distinctions of sex or estate” had no plausibility. 

Despite what leftists proclaim, the act of loving one another, including beyond traditional boundaries, does not inherently constitute a revolutionary act. Engels reinforced this idea in On the History of Early Christianity, which disapproved of the pacification of Early Christianity and its transformation from a revolutionary, working-class religion of “undiluted revenge” into a petit-bourgeois religion of “love your enemies, bless them that curse you.”

The same principles Engels applied to the “religion of love” can be applied to the leftist values of openness and inclusivity. The proponents of these ideas suggest that the working class should be accepting and accommodating to the ideas, values, traditions, and mindsets of everyone, including the class exploiting them. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels deemed this position as belonging to the “socialistic bourgeoisie,” and criticised the belief “that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.” Therefore, Marxism has little to do with absolute ‘inclusivity’ and notions of ‘liberation through love’, making it distinct from the leftist counterculture movement borne out of the 1960s and 70s. 

Equal rights

One of the most misunderstood aspects of Marxism is its stance on the concept of equal rights. Despite the prevalent use of ‘equal rights’ as a leftist buzzword, Marx’s work, the End of Classical German Philosophy, outlines that, within bourgeois society, equal rights are, in fact, formally recognised. However, social satisfaction does not depend upon equal rights but material rights – and “capitalist production takes care to ensure that the great majority of those with equal rights shall get only what is essential for bare existence.” In this respect, if the interests of classes in conflict are irreconcilable, the material rights of one class impede on the material rights of another. Therefore, better conditions are not brought about through platitudes of equal rights, but through material rights and the abolition of classes. In Anti-Dühring, Engels traced the origins of the demand for “equal rights” to the bourgeoisie’s struggle against feudalism. During this period, the bourgeoisie called for the abolition of “class privileges” and the proletariat demanded the abolition of classes themselves. 

Furthermore, while leftists uphold equal rights on the basis that all people, by virtue of being human, should be treated the same, Marxism recognises that, within class society, individuals do not relate to each other solely as humans but also as members of a class. In this respect, during the epoch of capitalism, the bourgeoisie uses the state apparatus to suppress the working class. Likewise, during the epoch of socialism, the new state apparatus is used by the working class to suppress the bourgeoisie. 

Moreover, socialism and communism does not seek to enforce complete equality in the everyday life of members of society regardless of how driven and hardworking one might be compared to another. As per Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, “Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriations.” Thus, Communism allows for individuals to enrich themselves over others, so long as this enrichment does not come at anyone else’s expense. Therefore, it is a widespread misconception that hard works reaps no reward under socialism and communism – in fact, hard work can only truly be rewarded under socialism and communism.

The state & taxes

Another policy often associated with leftists is ‘big government’, that is, that the government should play a more active role within society. However, as Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto, as the proletariat raises itself to the position of ruling class, it sweeps away the conditions of class antagonisms and classes generally, abolishing its own supremacy as a class. At this stage, the state, which functions as an organ of class domination, becomes obsolete as classes do not exist. Consequently, communism does not necessarily involve government intervention into the personal lives of members of society. While the early stage of socialism requires a strong state to centralise production and defend the gains of the revolution, as socialism develops, the state is increasingly stripped back.

In practice, efforts to shift power away from the state into the hands of the people is reflected within Mao Zedong’s little red book, which was published and distributed with the aim of strengthening the peoples understand of Marxism, thus empowering them as the real movement in charge of building a communist society – bottom up, not top down.  

Leftists also often advocate for high taxation as the grand solution to all domestic problem without realising, however, that the scale and direction of taxation is determined first and foremost by the class characteristic of the state. 

Under capitalism, the state serves the interests of the bourgeoisie, and is parasitic in that it sustains a superfluous class of individuals who do not produce material value for society such as the bourgeois police; the military; the whole judicial apparatus; members of parliament, who get paid disproportionately high salaries; etc. Additionally, the state revenue necessary for war and overseas military bases is generated through taxing the working class, while monopolies pile up war profits. Only a fraction of revenue is allocated to production, and to things like the maintenance of roads, railways, buildings, hospitals, schools, etc. 

On the other hand, under socialism, the state serves the interests of the working class and functions mainly to administer economic life. The socialist state is concerned with the production and distribution of goods, the advancement of the wellbeing of working people, and the maintenance of a limited military apparatus to protect the gains of the revolution. 

In the Civil War in France, Marx described the Paris Commune as having made the “catchword of bourgeois revolutions – cheap government – a reality by destroying the two greatest sources of expenditure: the standing army and state functionalism.” The ‘cheap government’ of socialism is financed partly through state owned industry and trade, money which would overwise be retained as private profit under capitalism, and partly through taxation. However, as the state becomes stripped back to the minimum of its functions, taxation is still considerably low as there is no superfluous, parasitic class living off the state as there is under capitalism. 

Furthermore, in the Critique of the Gotha programme, Marx stated that “taxes are the economic basis of the government machinery and of nothing else.” Therefore, as socialist society progresses towards communism and the state, along with its government machinery, gradually withers away, high taxes cease to have an economic basis. For example, no great war machinery is necessary under communism as the international community has a shared future with common interests. In this respect, while a heavy income tax serves as a progressive demand within capitalist society, socialism and communism eventually leads to a society free from the burden of high taxes on working people. 

As the writings of Marx and Engels do not align with, or go beyond, many leftist cultural and economic values, the idea that Marxism is a leftist ideology in the popular understanding of the term should, at the very least, be questioned. Marxism should instead be upheld by communists as a scientific method of analysis existing outside of the political spectrum.

Kate Woolford is the editor of Challenge

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