[Marxism] why did Marx reject moral?

James Daly james.irldaly at ntlworld.com
Sat Oct 1 07:46:26 MDT 2005


I have given what I think is a marxist reply to a New Statesman 
article below about relativism (Marx is sometimes called a 
relativist), in the hope that it may throw some light on your 
question. -- J. D.



Unfortunately, the author leaves out economics, and poses his question 
in a Habermasian way as if it were about relativism, a question of the 
perennial philosophical question of the objectivity of morals.  The 
real issue is the unmasking of Bush's latest lie that the Usuk forces 
are in Iraq to bring democracy.

And yet, Bush may well believe that that is what Usuk is doing. For, 
as he said in his Moscow press conference, he told Vladimir that 
democracy means that if you make an investment, you can be sure that 
the laws will not change.  In other words, democracy is freedom -- of 
enterprise (backed to the hilt, including financially, by the state); 
separation of the capitalist economy from social politics, of 
profitmaking from community care for all.

*In that sense*, in the name of democracy Bush is imposing the 
politics of laissez-faire liberalism, for the sake of its 
corresponding economics of imperialism -- commodification, and 
ownership or control, of all the resources of the planet in the hands 
of and to the economic benefit of the dominant owners of capital.  The 
pursuit of this requires the repudiation of any concept of 
international law, and the unlimited use of military force.

Full and real democracy can only be international, economic and 
participatory, not national, political and representative. But in the 
meantime in an oppressed country true democracy and genuine 
enlightenment requires resistance to economic, political and cultural 
imperialism.  In this process religion may attract those who most feel 
the need of the community which laissez-faire possessive individualism 
smashes, as has been seen recently in New Orleans.  The technical and 
social success of anti-imperialist Cuba's communal approach to 
hurricanes has shown that such socialism embodies essential humanism 
for today. If such anti-imperialist socialism could succeed on a 
worldwide basis most cultural identity problems would disappear in 
dialogue.  But that is the genetic order; it cannot successfully be 
reversed by beginning with relativism about cultural identity 
problems -- for example equally validating the word views of the Ku 
Klux Klan and the NAACP, or -- as is happening in the Conflict 
Resolution approach of the present "Peace Process" -- of the Orange 
Order and the Irish liberation movement.  In that sense relativism is 
a pernicious instrument of control.  In the form of Humean scepticism, 
the reduction of the rational and common good to individual pleasure 
and utility, and the claim that there are no experts in values, it has 
played this role, for example in justifying Enlightened mill- and 
mine-owners' employing eight-year-old children.

James Daly


New Statesman Essay (October 03 2005)
by Sholto Byrnes

There is no thought-crime greater today, it seems, than sympathy for 
relativism. To label an argument "relativist" is to dismiss it 
instantly, to imply that the argument's proposer has fallen into such 
moral jeopardy that no further rebuttal is required. This is curious. 
One might have thought that the relativist position - to judge a 
society by its own cultural and ethical customs - was not only 
sensible, as our understanding of other societies will be severely 
limited if we do not take these customs into account, but also the 
genuinely liberal position. Do not liberals pride themselves on their 
willingness to accept that others may have different ideas about how 
the world should be ordered?

But we are all worshippers at the altar of western liberal democracy 
now, and the paradox at the heart of this supposedly tolerant creed is 
that it is intolerant of any society which orders its affairs 
according to different principles.

Our faith in western liberal democracy, and our unshakeable belief 
that it is the unique possessor of a superior moral truth, have 
blinded us time and again to the realities in countries with other 
traditions. Furthermore, it endangers our own security. Seeing the 
world through this prism, we are unable to concede the force of other 
bonds, such as religion, tribe or a non-democratic form of hierarchy. 
We may admit that these factors carry some weight in parts of the 
world where the United States and its deputy sheriffs, Britain and 
Australia, so arrogantly assume the right to interfere, but we 
consider them to be no more than veils of ignorance to be swept aside. 
Then, we say, the peoples of these countries will gladly embrace our 
values as surely as medieval man would have accepted that the earth 
was round, not flat, had he been privy to the wonders of modern 

Only it doesn't quite work like that. The mystery is that we persist 
in our belief in the universality of western liberal democracy in the 
face of consistent evidence that other parts of the world have deep 
attachments to different value systems. Some may say that we ought to 
look to our own house given that, under varied forms of our treasured 
faith, the wrong US president was elected in 2000 and the Labour Party 
gained a large majority in the House of Commons with the lowest share 
of the vote in British electoral history earlier this year. But the 
more salient point is that there is no tradition of anything 
approaching western liberal democracy in many countries. Why should 
they be so desperate to adopt it? Especially when our attempts to 
persuade others of its merits are often accompanied by threats, to 
withhold aid, trading rights or the like, thus leading legitimate 
reasoned argument to degenerate into bullying.

Convinced of the universal appeal and application of our creed, we 
ignore local historical and cultural factors. So we remove Saddam 
Hussein (whom no one disputes was an evil dictator) and are then 
surprised when liberal democracy does not instantly flourish in the 
soil of ancient Mesopotamia. Instead, as Iraq falls apart, its 
population demonstrates an appetite for using the democratic process 
to vote for parties whose express purpose is to set up an Islamic, not 
a liberal democratic, state. Already the cause of women's rights has 
been seriously set back. (One of the positive aspects of Ba'athism, 
from a western point of view, is that it is a secular and, at least in 
terms of equality between the sexes, a modern political philosophy. 
Yet we are not interested in finding areas of common ground; liberal 
democracy does not negotiate.)

Whatever colours are flown by an eventual Iraqi government - assuming 
there is an Iraq left to be governed - we are deluded if we expect 
them to bear any similarity to the tricolour of liberte, egalite and 
fraternite. Throughout most of the Middle East, the popular 
alternative to dictatorial or semi-dictatorial regimes is not our 
system of government but Wahhabist or Shia theocracy. This is 
headbangingly obvious to anyone who has spent time in the region. But, 
of course, the leaders of the west are not Arabists. Why should they 
know anything of the Middle East's history?

Why should they be expected to remember that Iraq is a country cobbled 
together from three provinces of the old Ottoman empire (the same 
three areas that had so much trouble agreeing a constitution)? Or that 
a Hashemite prince from the Hijaz, who was being compensated by the 
British for their failure to ensure that his father became ruler of 
the Arabian peninsula, was plonked on its throne after the First World 
War? We wave aside such complications in our certainty of the cure-all 
properties of our faith, frequently damaging our own interests in the 

Yet if we cannot expect our leaders to bother to take into account a 
little local history, or to reflect that the Arab nationalism which 
the west did so much to undermine might have been preferable to the 
militant Islam we helped to unleash, we certainly can't expect the 
vast majority of the western populace to have any genuine 
understanding of these societies.

Western liberal commentators are at particular fault here for their 
unwillingness to recognise shades of grey. If they find anything 
disagreeable about a regime, it is instantly condemned. Little do they 
realise - or if they do realise, they fail to acknowledge - that the 
alternative may be still less palatable according to their tastes. So 
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, for instance, is damned for banning 
certain parties from last month's presidential election. He is less 
than perfect according to our criteria. But would western critics 
really prefer a candidate from one of the banned parties, the Muslim 
Brotherhood, to determine Egyptian policy towards Israel instead? And 
who do they think is standing in the wings waiting to take over if the 
House of Saud falls? That Osama Bin Laden is one of those most eager 
for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family should give liberal 
critics pause for thought.

This determination to see the world as entirely black and white, as 
either meeting or failing by the standards of western liberal 
democracy, blinds us from seeing what we would otherwise recognise as 
good in our terms. It leads us to act with enmity towards those who 
should be our friends. The British media collude in this polarisation, 
at times through ignorance, at times through ideology. Positive 
aspects are brushed aside in order that our prosecution should not be 
hindered by inconvenient mitigating factors.

Thus, one newspaper attacked Cherie Blair over her recent lecture in 
Kuala Lumpur on the grounds that Malaysia was a "repressive regime". 
This is an absurd oversimplification of a cosmopolitan society in 
which three main ethnic groups manage to exist mostly in harmony; of 
an Islamic state where non-Muslims are free from the restrictions of 
sharia law; and in which the Islam that is practised is far removed 
from the more conservative form familiar to us through television 
reports from the Middle East.

It ignores the fact that Malaysia is a democracy in which - not that 
you'd know it from western reports - the governmental coalition loses 
elections; and that it is a country where criticism of the previous 
prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed
(it's usually him people have in mind when they attack the Malaysian 
political system), is to be found in books, in newspapers and even on 
the walls of the museum dedicated to the father of Malaysian 
independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman.

No, it is not perfect. The charges of sodomy and corruption for which 
the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was jailed in 1999 were 
openly acknowledged as politically motivated and dubious. Anwar was 
released last year after the sodomy conviction was quashed, but he is 
not quite the liberal reformist the west likes to portray him as. 
Keadilan, the party of which he is de facto head
(he is still banned from political office until 2008), is allied with 
Pas, an Islamic fundamentalist party which favours the imposition of a 
very strict form of sharia law. For all its faults, anyone familiar 
with Malaysia would describe it as a modern, vibrant place. Western 
critics, however, judge it wanting by their standards, and so condemn 
it as a "repressive regime". The disparity would be laughable, if it 
did not constitute so grave a failure to understand the local 
historical factors that have led Malaysia to develop as it has.

If the west doesn't try to understand the forces that swirl through 
societies which have not drawn deeply from the wells of Athenian 
democracy and the European Enlightenment, it will never be able to 
engage with them. Instead, it will continue to barge in, stirring up 
all sorts of post-imperial resentments and fuelling religious 
conflicts on the way, and it will continue to be baffled by the lack 
of gratitude that greets its interventions.

Why should it be any different, however, given that the west considers 
itself to have a monopoly on the truth? Now that the proselytisers are 
to the fore more than ever, they consider it their right and duty to 
lecture others on how to behave. When the leaders of countries with 
different values express irritation at being patronised by countries 
that were once their colonial masters, they are often dismissed as 
either corrupt or dictatorial.

We may not agree with the way affairs are ordered in other countries, 
and we might take to the streets if there were any suggestion that 
such systems should be implemented here. Can we not concede, though, 
that the populations of other countries may find them not only 
tolerable but even desirable? The western liberal-democratic consensus 
says not. But why has this consensus become so rigid? Just where does 
this unquestioning faith in the universal applicability of our values 
come from?

One theory traces our moral certainty in this political faith to the 
Christian roots of the west. In Christian theology, God is the source 
of all morality. In societies which for centuries were almost wholly 
Christian and whose laws were informed by religion, Christian morality 
became conflated with objective universal morality - that which is 
somehow built into the fabric of the universe. We have, by and large, 
removed God from the equation, but our conviction remains. Christians 
can fudge the question of whether their morality is objective or not; 
the buck stops, ultimately, with God. The rest of us need a better 
justification of our moral beliefs than the unsupported and unprovable 
statement that they are objective. That is no more than an assertion.

If, then, we cannot prove the universality and objectivity of our 
moral creed - for that is exactly what our belief in western liberal 
democracy is - why should we expect others to accept it? To downgrade 
western liberal democracy to a social contractual morality is, of 
course, to deny it the quasi-religious force that we are accustomed to 
ascribe to it. Yet it is much more justifiable, and it also allows us 
to make sense of other countries' obstinate refusal to take the 
medicine we keep trying to force upon them.

Seeing different countries' value systems and cultural customs in the 
context of their own implicit social contracts enables us to relate to 
them more easily. Then you can accept, for instance, that in many 
countries there is sufficient attachment to tribal solidarity and 
hereditary rule as to make a different form of government appropriate. 
The western liberal sees no merit in such considerations because he 
has long ceased to give them any weight, but others do.

To give a more down-to-earth example: recognising different social 
contractual arrangements would also help if you were buying land in 
the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Because many local tribes consider 
the land to contain the spirits of their ancestors, they can never 
deem it sold in the way that we would. Consequently, westerners who 
have bought plots of land have often been asked, quite volubly, to pay 
for them again a few years later. You could rail and reason and 
explain the western concept of property ownership until the mosquitoes 
swarm at dusk, and it would make no difference. They have a different 
value system. It is, after all, their country.

If to understand and accept that is a form of relativism, then where 
is the sin? We in the west continue to maintain that we know better, 
and that we have the right to impose our values on the rest of the 
world. While we continue to enjoy superiority in wealth and weaponry 
we can get away with it. But what if one day the objects of our 
lecturing turn round and demand, "Says who?" If, in their fury, their 
response goes beyond words, we should not be surprised.

Sholto Byrnes is a staff writer on the Independent

Copyright New Statesman 1913 - 2005

----- Original Message ----- 

From: "Julius Wilm" <jwilm at ruc.dk> To: "Activists and scholars in 
Marxist tradition" <marxism at lists.econ.utah.edu> Sent: Wednesday, 
September 28, 2005 9:25 AM Subject: [Marxism] why did Marx reject 

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