Moral objectivity in history


2.1 The Means to an End

In the instance of the American Civil War it isn’t particularly difficult to take Marx and Engels as being on the ‘right side’ by their own analysis of the world-historical situation. The pre-conditions for socialism are generated by the capitalist system, in its creation of a material surplus, as well as the development of democratic institutions and civil liberties. Capitalism would develop to such an extent that it would further its own demise, its crises would become more and more destructive each time. Yet the destructive capacities of capitalism are what lead to the revolutionary change, which is itself based upon the material advances made under capitalism. It is this teleological model which raises a troubling question of historical development as constituted by a succession of stages, each one necessary and justifiable in its own terms. As if the means necessary to bringing the end into fruition will be justifiable in those terms. It would seem as though injustice now is necessary for justice later, as Terry Eagleton puts it.[1]

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels are sure to criticise the utopian socialists in relying on claims of ‘justice’ and ‘morality’ to chastise the social order for its ills. This is a current found elsewhere in Marx’s work, for instance, when he scolds Karl Heinzen for appealing to ‘humanity’ in his vision for a socialist republic.[2] As Hobsbawm notes, the point of these polemics was anti-utopian as part of the overall project to develop a scientific socialism.[3] To this end Marx set out to demystify the economic system and its inner-workings to release the socialist movement from its ensnarement and thereby get beyond the petty moralistic rhetoric rather than theory. For Marx the trouble with moralism, in Eagleton’s words, is that “it abstracts ‘moral values’ from the whole historical context in which they are set, and then generally proceeds to hand down absolute moral judgements.”[4] This is far from irrelevant, as we will see, in Marx’s analysis of British-ruled India.

In Marx’s eyes British rule in India was creating the necessary pre-conditions for the colonial shackles they had imposed on the country to be thrown-off.[5] We find this when he writes “When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous Pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.”[6] The hierarchy presupposed here – capitalism over pre-capitalist formations, communism over capitalism – brings us back to the distinction between political emancipation and human emancipation that was made in the Jewish Question. Marx recognises that the “misery inflicted by the British on Hindustan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindustan had to suffer before.”[7] He takes this to be a revolutionary transformation of India, namely the huge costs to bear, in ‘blowing up’ the material basis of its mode of production. The British were only moved by the ‘vilest of interests’ to change India in this way and Marx concludes that the British behaved as “the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution”.[8]

In this moment it would seem as though Marx finds that the consequences of grotesque actions may be progressive. He goes on to describe the Indian mission of the British as a duality: regenerative in one way, destructive in another.[9] Cohen makes the point that injustice can have extrinsic value even as it has intrinsic disvalue.[10] He notes that the disvalue of slavery is to be abolished, while the pyramids hold intrinsic value and should be preserved. Yet the latter may not have emerged without the former. We find the same with capitalist class society, as Cohen writes that Marx found socialism “necessary to preserve the fruits of civilisation against the ravages of capitalism.”[11] Socialism is to be the advance upon the achievements of capitalist society, the level of productive forces is not to be diminished nor is the process of wealth creation to be abandoned. It’s to do with the technical distribution, ownership and control of property and the means of production rather than a primitivist rejection of all those elements. This might be a part of the reason that Marx seems to use ‘civilisation’ as a synonym for capitalism, and ‘barbarism’ for its less advanced predecessors: considering the British as ‘superior’ to all previous conquerors whom he deems ‘barbarian’.

We may say that Marx overestimated the ‘revolutionary potential’ of capitalism to overturn all pre-existing forms of hierarchy and domination. Britain is a good example of a capitalist society where the remnants of the feudal past remain intact in the continuation of the monarchy, lords and the state-church. Likewise the caste system of India has survived the explosive development of capitalism in that country. Not all pre-capitalist formations are strictly incompatible with capitalist development. Far from it, some appear to be complimentary. It would appear contradictions can be sustained for a long time in this way. It may be that in his haste to throw-out the baggage of evaluative judgements (of claims to morality and justice) it would seem as though Marx can’t help but bring on board his own. The evaluative implications of these points on India seem to place Marx among the ranks of liberal apologists for empire. What differentiates Marx from this crowd is the awareness of the huge human costs of historical development. The means and the ends are askew.

According to Alasdair MacIntyre, there are at least two ways in which Marx uses morally evaluative language: to simply a) help describe actions and institutions adequately as no words could rise to provide an account of slavery without condemnatory tones, as well as to b) explicitly criticise the system on its own standards, terms and values.[12] The first application is consistent with the precepts of Marx’s theory of history, in that it takes events in a historic context. Slavery is taken as an institution of a different time, pre-capitalist and transient it should be superseded by the rising dynamism of capitalism. The second point seems more of a tactical application to turn the standards of the period against itself whenever possible. No doubt it is more about the maintenance of an oppositional standpoint. This would take the historical modes of production to constitute self-containing epochs wherein an array of values can be encapsulated. In describing slavery there is no appeal to transcendent standards except insofar as we are looking at slavery as part of a historic linear pattern.

MacIntyre argues that this is consistent if you begin at the same point as Marx, e.g. that there is a class conflict situated in material-historical conditions.[13] It doesn’t seem as though any appeals to social justice can be made within this framework. As that would lose sight of the bourgeoisie as a class in its role as incapable of moving beyond the system to which they belong. The appeal to moral principles always presupposes a shared moral vocabulary within the existing state of affairs. The moral values of the bourgeoisie make sense, for they are values moulded to fit with the structures of class oppression and exploitation, of which they are the beneficiaries. No amount of philanthropy will suffice as it necessarily takes place internal to class hierarchy; it requires the processes of accumulation and dispossession as its starting point. By analogy we may look at social democratic reform as a means of taming the system’s excesses, its answer is to conserve the system by improving it.

In the terms of the bourgeois period of development, as Marx would insist, exploitation is not an unjust means to an end; rather it is – apart of the means of production, distribution and exchange – when held to the standards of its own historical epoch.[14] In this way Marx rejected the claims that the mode of exploitation was ‘unjust’ in that it is consistent on its own terms. In his lexicon ‘exploitation’ designates a technical aspect of the productive process, in that through the extraction of minerals we exploit them. It carries little in the way of moral connotations in this way. This is not the position of an amoralist or a relativist, as we shall see. The ways in which the bourgeoisie have shaped the world may have more than the intended consequences. The spread of the nation-state model around the world through European colonialism created the basis for national liberation movements to emerge. Perhaps it may be possible to salvage Marx on India in this way. For there to be a resistance first to colonialism and then to capitalism, there has to be the entity to resist against in the first place. The opposition to ‘civilising missions’ may be found to be dialectical: the process by which pre-capitalist modes are overcome creates the basis for the emergence and eventual fall of capitalism.

This is not inherently anti-imperialist on its own, though it is possible to shift to an oppositional position insofar as the negation of certain conditions can’t be accomplished without such an element. We’d do better to scrutinise the language of historical inevitability and necessity. It is in the conditions of the existing order wherein the future can begin to emerge. In the actions undertaken to build socialism out of capitalist crisis it is the bourgeois order that provides those actions with a starting-point. On these grounds Marx found good reason to write “The bourgeois period of history has to create the material basis of the new world.”[15] The emphasis on ‘has to’ rather than ‘will lead to’ seems not to imply that the stages of colonialism and capitalism will inevitably lead to emancipation. Given that the period of bourgeois rule is transient rather than permanent ‘it has’ to be superseded by an emancipatory epoch. The hope seems to be that the advent of socialism can make up for the enormous suffering under the preceding modes of exploitation.


2.2 Historical Inevitability and Necessity

The necessity of particular conditions for the advancement of material development does not amount to inevitability. Contingency is not removed an impossibility in the transience of these epochs. For the possibility of socialism arrives under conditions of a highly advanced capitalist system, wherein contradictions and crises can coalesce with the movements of the day to facilitate the construction of socialism. In this way Marx claimed that each crisis of capitalism would be worse than the last and this in turn makes socialism increasingly feasible.[16] The feasibility of the socialist project does not equate to its automatic appearance upon the collapse of capitalism. Decades later, Rosa Luxemburg argue that the capitalist system is limited as its own accumulative capacities run up against the scarcity of plundered resources, its own death knell perhaps contained in its inability to turn back from perpetual expansion.[17] Just as Rosa Luxemburg was not putting forward the case for a passive proletariat neither were Marx and Engels. Whether or not socialism ‘has to’ happen matters not, history may still culminate in barbarism. Marx briefly acknowledges this in the Manifesto when he notes the plausibility of this process amounting to the ‘common ruination of all classes’.[18]

On these grounds we may say that Marx did not view socialism as a strictly inevitable stage in history which would supersede capitalism in automatic succession. This interpretation would fit much better with the early emphasis on human agency and praxis against the determinism that may be read into his work. It was a reasonable assumption that we may overthrow capitalism before it exhausts the basis for its own perpetuation. In these terms socialism seems more like a necessary step, rather than an inevitable one in this understanding of history. It would appear that there was space for human agency within Marx’s framework. In the Brumaire Marx famously writes “Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”[19] The actions undertaken freely by a class-conscious proletariat are made in accordance with particular circumstances, where the proper conditions may facilitate a revolutionary leap. The system may have the potential to destroy itself through a terminal crisis but that alone wouldn’t bring on socialism automatically. The development of the productive forces under capitalism may prepare the ground for socialism, but it’s up to the workers to take action.

In line with this emphasis on human agency there is the possibility of applying a moral vocabulary which does not presuppose the existing order we’re living in. MacIntyre speculates that it may be found in the expression of wants and needs which cannot be satisfied within existing society.[20] This would almost make moral values into a set of ‘transitional demands’ that the market system cannot meet and thereby necessitate the establishment of a new order.[21] Socialism enters here as a competing model able to meet the wants and needs of the proletariat under capitalism. There seems to be a problem here, as a moral vocabulary which does not presuppose the existing order may appeal to non-relative standards and values as transcendent to the historical process. It is a possibility that Marx rules out as a necessary part of his theory of history. But if moral values cannot be taken as universal, in a trans-historical or even ahistorical manner, then it would seem that the Marxist historiography is at risk of collapsing into a form of descriptive relativism without much to offer in normative terms.

By the 1870s Marx had attracted attention from radicals far and away; one of them was the Narodnik theoretician Nikolai Mikhailovsky who found fault with Marx’s thesis. In his nostalgia for primitive communalism Mikhailovsky found Marx’s thesis of a historically inevitable shift to capitalism untenable.[22] The Narodnik movement saw the peasant commune as a means of bypassing capitalist development.[23] In response Marx emphasised that the path of capitalist emergence he laid out in Capital was unique to European history and not necessarily universal.[24] Historical materialism is not a historico-philosophical theory encompassing all possible paths under all conceivable circumstances. The contours of Russian historical development may differ enormously due to radically differing conditions and variables. Marx clarifies the application of his thesis to Russia:

…if Russia tries to become a capitalist nation, in imitation of the nations of western Europe, and in recent years she has taken a great deal of pains in this respect, she will not succeed without first having transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians; and after that, once brought into the lap of the capitalist regime, she will be subject to its inexorable laws, like other profane nations.[25]

This is the reason why appeals to universal principles of justice and morality were to be resisted. It seems consistent with the self-contained view of history, which MacIntyre elaborates, as well as open to a multi-linear conception of historical development. Yet if the materialist conception of history amounted to a relativisation of epochs then it might only be descriptive and lack any capacity to advocate a position. This seems to be contradictory. As the Marxist project is an analysis directed towards certain political ends it cannot be cut-off and read just as a theory of capitalism. Towards the end of his life Marx would correspond with another Russian radical Vera Zasulich, this time directly on the question of the model of the peasant commune. Once again Marx would emphasise that ‘historical inevitability’ only really applied in Western Europe where the transition from feudalism and slavery had been made much earlier than in Russia.[26] And that the transition to capitalism was undertaken through the transformation of common property into private property. He notes that it may be possible through the peasant commune to acquire “a new skin without beginning by its suicide.”[27] By developing the land as commonly owned it can lay the basis for future development without privatisation and the ‘capitalist regime’ may be bypassed, albeit with the use of resources which can hardly be taken to be socialist. In this we may see a less rigid framework, as Marx seems to open to the possibility of synchronous rather than sequential development. Marx seemed to adjust to particular developments in the world-historical situation.

It may be argued that Marxism doesn’t have a moral approach to history, but it does have a historical approach to moral questions. As Sean Sayers argues, the problem may be the dichotomy of relativism and universalism.[28] Marx’s position fits neither in his commitment to moral realism at the normative level and historical relativism at the descriptive level of analysis. Sayers argues that the existing social order holds within it the forces which not only sustain it but the forces that oppose it.[29] Society is contradictory, its changes are driven by these contradictions and it seems possible that the moral critique of society can come about within that society. This understanding of morality as historical is the basis on which a moral and political position may be predicated.[30] As the class struggle is historically situated we might adapt Trotsky’s point that the means may be justified by the end, but the end in its turn has to be justified in turn.[31] It is the historical interests of the proletariat which are the criteria in such case.[32] The presupposition being a rejection of the rigid fact-value distinction to hold that the objective and the subjective cannot be disentangled with ease. In this way the Marxist tradition may be taken as a kind of naturalism, it is not simply ‘confusing’ judgements of facts with those of evaluative content – it is that there is no strict separation of values from facts.[33] In similar spirit Trotsky writes Marxism “does not know dualism between means and end. The end flows naturally from the historical movement. Organically the means are subordinated to the end. The immediate end becomes the means for a further end.”[34]

There is no need for transcendent standards, or even trans-historical principles, as the objectivity of moral values cannot be separated from historical contours which are relative and contingent.[35] Yet the capitalist system may be an advance upon its predecessors in relative terms, the historical approach must hold some normativity for one mode of production to be seen as a progression on another. Socialism is inseparable from the conditions created by capitalism, its objectivity is rooted in the critical-historical analysis of political economy. Capitalism can be criticised from a post-capitalist standpoint, with the objective claims as a necessary part of the analysis.[36] Moral criticism is not merely immanent or tactical then, it is almost prefigurative. In that the analysis of the capitalist system necessarily leads to longstanding goals and the alternative. The Marxist critique of capitalism is neither ahistorical nor relativist, as Marxism is not welded to the capitalist system nor is it transcendent in absolutist fashion. Once capitalism has been superseded and the socialist transition accomplished Marxism may hold little relevance in its analysis of the existing order.

With all of this in mind there is another distinction worth making. Marx may view moral claims as ideological, but he accepts the moral claims of emancipation.[37] Perhaps this is because such claims may lead towards a post-capitalist morality. After all it is the case that the Marxist project is to overcome the conditions of subjugation which hold women and men in constant toil for the enrichment of others in a denial of their species-being. As Terry Eagleton writes that Marx’s moral inquiry “refuses to divorce human values, behaviour, relationships and qualities from the social and historical forces which shape them.”[38] Before going on to add that Marx “belonged to the great Aristotelian tradition for which morality was not primarily a question of laws, obligations, codes and prohibitions, but a question of how to live in the freest, fullest, most self-fulfilling way.”[39]

If we accept that there is no inevitable link between capitalism and socialism. That isn’t to say that post-capitalist society is not external to the historical process, the lower phase of communism develops from capitalism as its starting-point. Communism is not a ‘moral ideal’ but the product of the same historical line. It is the abolition of the present state of things to paraphrase Marx in the Manifesto.[40] It constitutes the break with ‘pre-historic’ modes of exploitation after which history proper can begin. But it must begin then with premises set within capitalism, as Marx reassures us in the German Ideology “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. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”[41]


Overall there is no one implication to be taken away from all of this. What we have looked at is still far removed from the recent developments in discourse around interventionism. Rather the implications of Marx’s historiography may hold more sway in the analysis of the world-historical situation. There may be no definitive answer on interventionism yet, and certainly not to be uncovered in a project such as this. Nevertheless, I think we may take a few modest points from all this.

We saw in the first section that taking capitalism as a historical mode of production can have positive implications with regard to conflict. This invokes evaluative claims that take capitalism as an advance on feudalism and slavery. The language of human rights and civil liberties may well serve as a means of progression from conditions of pre-capitalist servitude, or even authoritarianism, but it shouldn’t be taken as the end itself. Human emancipation won’t be hastened just by granting rights and freedoms to individuals, it requires a major transformation of the means of production and the relations within those means in order to move towards a more meaningful form of emancipation. In this way the progressive leap from one imperfect form of society to a more perfect form, in that the barriers to greater self-realisation are circumvented.

In the second section we looked at Marx’s more controversial writing on the consequences of British colonial rule in India. Here we find Marx taking a similar position to the liberals of his day, except for different reasons; he doesn’t take the British Empire to be munificent to its colonial subjects. Rather it is a case of unintended consequences arising from grotesque actions. Progress as achieved by its ‘bad side’, with the flaws of ‘Asiatic society’ swept away for capitalism to take hold Marx sees the chance for India to move not just beyond British rule but beyond capitalism as well. The more nuanced positions may be to acknowledge the advances possibly achieved via colonialism, while retaining an oppositional stance. By comparison, Lenin was right to oppose the First World War, and yet he acted upon the basis of the coordinates defined by that war to achieve his ends. It is dialectical to at once oppose the very coordinates by which advance might later be attained.

If we are going to go ahead with these presuppositions we may move to the third section. The multi-linear conception of historical development may well mean that we have reason to shed a great deal of doubt on Marx’s position regarding India. It may be right to insist upon a multi-linear account to address this issue in order to analyse societies outside of Europe’s own shift from feudalism to capitalism in terms of their own developing path. In the recognition of the possibility of socialism in Russia Marx acknowledged that the stages of development may be leaped or compressed. The resources of capitalist production could be used to supplement the shortcomings of the peasant commune. In that sense then we may say that there are possibilities for synchronous modes of production rather than sequential epochs. Consistently Hegelian the universal is to be reached through the particular.

In contrast to the directionality of linear stages it may be possible for an open-ended conception of historical development to be constructed. The certainty of a closed teleological sequence would be diminished in this way; leaving open a much greater account for the possibility that history may culminate in barbarism. In synoptic terms we may still maintain the view of capitalism as an advance upon feudalism, yet the communist project still stands as a necessity rather than a strict inevitability. This isn’t inconsistent with the position that it may be best to try and establish socialism on the basis of a massive surplus leftover by capitalism. That’s even if it is not the case in every society.

Previous: Progress under capitalism

[1] Eagleton, T; Is Marxism a Theodicy? (2010)

[2] Marx, K; Moralizing Criticism and Critical Morality (McLellan, D; Karl Marx: Selected Writings | Oxford University Press, 1977) pg.216-218

[3] Hobsbawm, E; On the Communist Manifesto (How to Change the World | Little Brown, 2011) pg.109

[4] Eagleton, T; Why Marx was Right (Yale University Press, 2011) pg.158-159

[5] Marx, K; The Future Results of British Rule in India (Surveys from Exile | Verso, 2010) pg.319-320

[6] Marx, K; The Future Results of British Rule in India (Surveys from Exile | Verso, 2010) pg.322-325

[7] Marx, K; The British Rule in India (Surveys from Exile | Verso, 2010) pg.301-303

[8] Ibid. pg.304-307

[9] Marx, K; The Future Results of British Rule in India (Surveys from Exile | Verso, 2010) pg.320-322

[10] Cohen, GA; Conservatism and Embodied Value (Oxford, 2004) pg.2

[11] Ibid. pg.34-36

[12] Macintyre, A; A Short History of Ethics (Routledge, 1991) pg.210-214

[13] Ibid.

[14] Miller, R; Analyzing Marx: Morality, Power and History (Princeton University Press, 1984) pg.90-91

[15] Marx, K; The Future Results of British Rule in India (Surveys from Exile | Verso, 2010) pg.324

[16] Cohen, GA; Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford University Press, 1978) pg.203-204

[17] Kolakowski, L; Main Currents of Marxism (Norton, 2005) pg.407-415

[18]Marx, K; The Manifesto of the Communist Party (The Revolutions of 1848 | Verso, 2010) pg.68

[19]Marx, K; The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Surveys from Exile | Verso, 2010) pg.146

[20] MacIntyre, A; A Short History of Ethics (Routledge, 1967) pg.210-214

[21] Ibid.

[22] Marx, K; Letter to Mikhailovsky (McLellan, D; Karl Marx: Selected Writings | Oxford University Press, 1977) pg.571-572

[23] Hobsbawm, E; Marx on pre-Capitalist Formations (How to Change the World | 2011) pg.162-164

[24] Marx, K; Letter to Mikhailovsky (McLellan, D; Karl Marx: Selected Writings | Oxford University Press, 1977) pg.571-572

[25] Ibid.

[26] Marx, K; Letter to Vera Zasulich (McLellan, D; Karl Marx: Selected Writings | Oxford University Press, 1977) pg.576-577

[27] Ibid. pg.578-580

[28] Sayers, S; Analytical Marxism and Morality (Marxism and Human Nature | Routledge, 1998) pg.119

[29] Ibid. pg.116

[30] Ibid. pg.121

[31] Trotsky, L; Their Morals and Ours (1938):

[32] Ibid.

[33] Sayers, S; Analytical Marxism and Morality (Marxism and Human Nature | Routledge, 1998) pg.116

[34] Trotsky, L; Their Morals and Ours (1938):

[35] Sayers, S; Analytical Marxism and Morality (Marxism and Human Nature | Routledge, 1998) pg.117

[36] Ibid. pg.121-122

[37] Sayers, S; Analytical Marxism and Morality (Marxism and Human Nature | Routledge, 1998) pg.125

[38] Eagleton, T; Why Marx was Right (Yale University Press, 2011) pg.159

[39] Ibid.

[40] Marx, K; The Manifesto of the Communist Party (The Revolutions of 1848 | Verso, 2010) pg.80

[41] Marx, K; The German Ideology (McLellan, D; Karl Marx: Selected Writings | Oxford University Press, 1977) pg.171

About Joshua White

a writer and journalist living in the UK where he works as Africa editor and researcher for the World Weekly. White is a philosophy graduate, specialising in political thought, and maintained a blog for several years. His main focus is national and international politics having written on subjects as seemingly far apart as US elections, Russian nationalism and the state of modern Britain.
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