More on Socialist energy / environment measures (response to Mark)

James Daly james.irldaly at
Tue Dec 3 08:00:07 MST 2002

It is of the utmost importance to challenge Mark's statement that

... people, even whole populations, might have to be

sacrificed to save some other species from extinction.

The issue becomes, how will we collectively make such

decisions, bearing in mind that under socialism the

collective will include presumably some of the people

whose lives might need to be sacrificed.

I totally agree with Kay when she writes:

What sort of muscular "scientific" socialism is this?

As a socialist I am not fighting for the right to be

complicit in deciding which group of humans has lesser

status and can be encouraged to self select or be

coerced to die for the rest of humanity and the

natural world.

But unfortunately Kay has said

... Mark offers up self sacrifice as an extreme


And that gives Mark an out, justifying *self*-sacrifice in armies etc.

*In fact* Mark's extreme solution was "sacrificing" whole populations. Kay's
point about the British government and the Irish famine is well taken, but a
more recent example comes to mind. Madeleine Albright was asked what she
thought about the death of half a million Iraqi children. She answered it
was a price worth paying.

She didn't pay it.

Kay unfortunately goes on to confuse sacrifice of others, which is
abominable, and self sacrifice, which is morally unproblematic and even
morally noble. And while it is true that "In early historic times the

of children was to placate an angry god or to please

one for a good harvest" it is the worst egoistic bourgeois ideology to say
that "At the heart of conscious self sacrifice is indeed

self interest.... Self sacrifice is engendered by fighting to keep what

you have got. Think Stalingrad. What about those

young boys on the line in Iran or indeed the Taliban?

They thought they would go immediately to heaven and

their families would be honoured".

Self sacrifice in practice, as at Stalingrad, can have a mixture of motives:
Kay mentions "Putting yourself on the line for the idea of a better

life", which she strangely finds "is not the same as to calmly go to your

death for the so called greater good"; and also "fighting against those who
would keep you

enslaved", which is legitimate self defence, but is in fact usually found
(and very often) in the more generous context of also defending others
(one's class or nation -- or even, as Benjamin says, ancestors; but often,
as Norman Geras has beautifully documented, others just because they are
human beings; or even the whole human race) from enslavement. The
psychopathology of Jonestown is hardly the same as the kamikaze or the

As for keeping what you've got, it was Lyndon Johnson who said "They want
what we've got and we're not going to let them have it."  (Those were
genteel times; Dubbya just says "We want what they've got, and we're not
going to let them keep it.")

Listers may be interested in excerpts from a critique I wrote of one
particular interpretation of Marxism, which appeared in an article in the
New Left Review and was accompanied by thanks to the editor Robin Blackburn
for his help, and which entailed conclusions similar to Mark's (and to Bill
Warren's) : [that was not meant to be a glum face, but it is appropriate any

J. D. -- Some Marxists have claimed the scientific expertise, as well as the
freedom (which was said to be the knowledge of necessity) to apply their
science by intervening in the process as social engineers; not just, to use
Marx's obstetric analogy, to hasten a delivery. In doing so it was thought a
sign of Marxist maturity to be arrogantly dismissive of "romantic, utopian"
challenges in the name of justice.

In Russia in 1891 there were self-styled Marxists who tried to stop help
being given to victims of a famine brought on by the conversion from
agrarian communism to capitalism in the absence of any alternative
industrial employment. (James White, Karl Marx and the Origins of
Dialectical Materialism, p. 340). They did so on the grounds that such aid
would obstruct the process of capitalist accumulation, which was a stage
through which, Marxist science was alleged to show, all countries must pass.
The evidence that Marx thought otherwise was deceitfully suppressed by
Plekhanov. Indeed, that happened to the entire evidence of Marx's
preoccupation during the last decade of his life with Russian agrarian
communism, and with the need to rethink his whole theory in the light of it.
In the endless task of rethinking Marxism this incident highlights one of
the most important problems. A Marxism which does not a priori reject such a
way of thinking -- and that in terms not of its incorrect solution to a
technical scientific problem but of moral repudiation -- has nothing to
offer humanity and does not deserve to survive.

Jeffrey Vogel's "The Tragedy of History" (New Left Review 220,
November-December 1996, pp 36-61) offers the possibility of clarifying
debate on this question, but it also shows the hold such Marxism still
continues to have. With one hand Vogel grants that Marx and Engels "do not
offer a consequentialist or utilitarian justification of ancient slavery";
that would be incompatible with "modern" notions of human decency. With the
other, however he takes back that concession, with his claimed that they
"emphasise both the necessity and desirability of even human slavery in
promoting human progress" [my emphasis -- J. D.] This interpretation even
leads Vogel to the improbable claim "Marx would not support the victory of
Spartacus at the cost of human development." According to Vogel "the
historical judgments that Marx and Engels make about the colonisation of
India and North Africa are incompatible with any ordinary notions of
justice", and "emphasise Marx's desire for human progress even at the
expense of innocent slaves and Native Americans" [my emphasis --J. D.]...

For Vogel, therefore, G. A. Cohen's statement that he hopes that if he had
been around in 1820 he would have fought against the emergence of
capitalism, however liberatory its consequences for socialism might be, is a
cautionary example of an attempted escape from the Dilemma of the
Enlightenment. Cohen's morality, which is said, like Rawls's, to give
primacy to justice over progress, is said to be different from Marx's....

Vulgar Marxism has been corrupted by utilitarianism, and misunderstands
Marx's critique of Hegel, which was a rejection of his ideological
justification ("idealisation, transfiguration and glorification") of the
status quo, as a total rejection of justice. Allen Wood recognises that his
immoralist interpretation of Marx's theory of justice assimilates Marx both
to Bentham (for whom natural justice is "nonsense upon stilts") and to
Nietzsche (for whom all justice is "womanly weakness"). Wood's lack of
recognition of the Aristotelian element in Marx's moral theory contrasts
strangely with his recognition that it pervades most other aspects of Marx's
thought. Vulgar Marxism defines progress in terms not of the "right" but of
the "good", which, as it does in Rawls's usage, means utility. What Vogel
calls the Conflict Theory of History is in fact a staple of bourgeois
ideology, claiming not only that the good and the right are totally
separate, but that the good does not come about through the right.

Far from being noted for this bourgeois theory, Marx rejected it, alike in
mechanists like Mandeville ("private vices, public benefits") and in
rationalists like Kant ("nature knows better than man" and produces
civilization ("sociability") through "unsocial" moral evil); in Smith (for
whom the "invisible hand of the market" does not depend upon "beneficence"),
and in Hegel (for whom "the cunning of reason" ensures that "History
progresses by its bad side"). The list of hard-headed if not hard-hearted
bourgeois thinkers is endless -- it includes Burke and Malthus for instance.
What Marx is noted for on the contrary is his rejection, as neither natural
nor rational, of this "tragic" theory of history which makes
trans-historical claims, such as that progress always occurs through
competition, never through co-operation. The Whig interpretation of history
was uncharacteristic in alleging a smooth social evolution of the British;
even then that happy few were seen as a-typical....

Vogel's dichotomised "progress" and "dignity [rights of Man -- J. D.]"
exemplify the Cartesian dichotomy which generated the conflict of utility
and justice, found in Allen Wood's "moral" and "non-moral" goods. In
presenting these two Enlightenment values as a stark could impossible
choice, Vogel's argument is similar to Sartre's, that morality cannot
produce the "right" answer (a word Vogel himself puts in quotation marks) to
the question of what I should choose; for instance, in Sartre's case, in a
clash between national and domestic duty. An answer is that in such hard
cases, where the choice is between two equally valuable "moral" goods,
neither a pre- nor a post-Cartesian morality requires a "right" answer; only
a good answer, which could well be to pursue either good. Moral and even
political choices however are not usually between two such panoramic and
mutually exclusive values. Actual intentionality is detailed and nuanced;
its phenomenology includes submitting, consenting, tolerating, acqiescing,
going along with faute de mieux or under protest, or as the lesser of two
evils, or to reform from within, etc. Its variety is obliterated by
reduction to the crude utilitarian and Kantian category "choice". It
requires Aristotle's phronesis (practical wisdom) rather than a social
engineer's handbook. However, stark practical choices can present
themselves, and when they do they cannot be avoided; abstention too is a
choice. Whoever was not with Spartacus, however critically, was against him;
Marx can hardly be imagined in their company. Vogel, by the way, makes no
attempt to justify the belief that if Spartacus had won, progress would
somehow have ceased.

According to Vogel, whereas liberals [but not socialists ? -- J. D.] who
"combine a desire for human progress with a desire for justice and human
liberty" judge ancient slavery "unconditionally wrong and unjust", Marx does
not. Instead he "has conflicting and unresolved feelings" about ancient
slavery and early capitalism. The notion of divided feelings does not solve
the problem. To say that slavery was "necessary and desirable" does not
state a neutral fact, nor express a mute feeling, in the empiricist sense of
an unavoidable natural event. It actually expresses an action-guiding
judgment. "Desirable" is a gerundive, meaning "to be desired", expressing a
rational ought; not the passive voice, meaning "can be desired". In this
context it can only mean that we should desire slavery because it is
necessary for progress. One cannot, morally speaking, have divided feelings
about ancient slavery or the colonisation of North America. One can have one
set of feelings about the means, and another entirely different set about
their consequences, as Vogel acknowledges in his totally unproblematic
example of being glad when a criminal is apprehended even as a result of an
illegal wire-tap. To have "mixed feelings" about the wire-tapping, however,
would be wrong, in the legal system in question. It would be wrong too to
have mixed feelings about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands even
if, for instance, it had led to enormous improvement in industrial
infrastructure. To have mixed feelings about Spartacus's slavery -- or about
his final defeat -- would be simply inhuman. The possession of an
explanatory theory does not exempt anyone -- or any class or party -- from
morality; we are human beings first and foremost.

That does not mean "Fiat justitia, ruat coelum"; minor legal and even moral
rights should be waived, indeed in some circumstances over-ridden, for a
disproportionate common good which is generally just. Nor is it to advocate
that Marxists should think they have to learn from liberals about justice
(something which Vogel rightly deplores), nor that they should conform to
the current liberal tendency (which Vogel also rightly deplores) to confine
justice to individuals' rights. But that is not for what seems to be Vogel's
reason, which is that present-day liberals no longer believe in progress,
and now privilege rights over progress. That does not even seem to be
factually true. After all, Rawls's theory of justice is only a moderating
corrective to utilitarianism (what he calls "teleology"), which he does not
criticise in any other respect, and it is only concerned with the minimum
threshold (the "deontological") above which utilitarianism's standard
justification of the priority of progress, in the form of economic growth,
over the justice of material equality, is allowed free play....

For Vogel "the bourgeoisie [innocent on Allen Wood's interpretation of
justice -- J. D.] must make the supreme sacrifice"... or they have "to be
sacrificed on the altar of human destiny".... On my very different
interpretation from Wood's of Marx's position on justice, I think that
Vogel's problems do not arise; and that, so interpreted, the texts he quotes
do not support his thesis. What they support, I think, is rather a claim
Marx made in "The Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction";
that the working-class's self-liberation will be "the redemption of
humanity". Marx expects that the working-class will recover in the name of
humanity what he called "the wealth of human history"; everything from the
cave paintings, through the thought of Aristotle, to the Hubble telescope.
But there are many differences between Marx's approach to progress and the
bourgeois one. One is that for Marx progress includes a dialectical recovery
of the past; it is not a process of the jettisoning of worn out stages. In
his late writings on the Russian commune he stressed that communism would be
the recovery of an archaic mode of production on a higher level;
philosophically, his own thought is a recovery of Aristotelian categories,
values and principles jettisoned by the Cartesian enlightenment. Marx's
redemptive response to the inhuman exploitation of generations of slaves has
been recovered by Walter Benjamin. In his Theses on History he writes that
even the dead are not safe from the enemy; our enslaved ancestors must be
redeemed from the victor. Those who interpret Marxism as a continuation of
bourgeois progress wish to join what he calls the triumphal procession of
the victors, to inherit the traditional spoils and continue the will to
power of previous ruling classes. That is to misinterpret Marx's use of the
word "science", and to confuse the values of his human science, the science
of becoming human, with those of bourgeois social engineering.

The first chapter of the book in which the above appears can be read at


James Daly


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