the Rathouse
Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 22:  The Moral Theory of Historicism

"It is this moral radicalism of Marx which explains his influence; and that is a hopeful fact in itself. This moral radicalism is still alive. It is our task to keep it alive, to prevent it from going the way which his political radicalism will have to go. ‘Scientific’ Marxism is dead. Its feeling of social responsibility and its love for freedom must survive."  

Given that Marxism cannot provide either reliable prophecies (nothing can) or advice on the piecemeal reforms that might achieve desired outcomes (Marx regarded that as Utopian) what accounts for the power and impact of Marxism?

It seems that Marxism surfed at least three “waves” of thought. Each was immensely powerful in its own right, and working in synergy the combination was practically overwhelming. One of the “waves” was the immense authority of science among educated and progressive people 150 years ago. The other was the Judao-Christian moral imperative to promote justice and especially to help the poor and the weak. A third wave was the economic illiteracy of radicals and conservatives alike. This meant that the positive function of free markets (especially for the able-bodied poor) was never understood by enough people to resist the manifold interventions of the state which aggravate the problems they are supposed to ameliorate.

Near the end of the previous chapter Popper wrote that “in Marxism the religious element is unmistakable. In the hour of their deepest misery and degradation, Marx’s prophecy gave the workers an inspiring belief in their mission, and in the great future which their movement was to prepare for the whole of mankind.”

In this chapter Popper outlined the moral theory that underpinned Marxism, a somewhat paradoxical situation given the official line on materialism and determinism which at least theoretically ruled out any attempt to think our away towards an improved social order by organized reforms. So how do we find the moral theory in Marxism?

"But although Marx was strongly opposed to Utopian technology as well as to any attempt at a moral justification of socialist aims, his writings contained, by implication, an ethical theory… By laying such stress on the moral aspect of social institutions, Marx [implicitly] emphasized our responsibility for the more remote social repercussions of our actions; for instance, of such actions as may help to prolong the life of socially unjust institutions. But although Capital is, in fact, largely a treatise on social ethics, these ethical ideas are never represented as such…."

Far from promoting an explicit moral theory, Marx excoriated those moralists, especially churchmen, who were in favour of the system that he regarded as the cause of misery and exploitation. Furthermore, the Marxist scheme did not provide for autonomous or freestanding moral principles.

"Marx and Engels preferred to look upon their humanitarian aims in the light of a theory which explains them as the product, or the reflection, of social circumstances. Their theory can be described as follows. If a social reformer, or a revolutionary, believes that he is inspired by a hatred of ‘injustice’, and by a love for ‘justice’, then he is largely a victim of illusion (like anybody else, for instance the apologists of the old order). Or, to put it more precisely, his moral ideas of ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’ are by-products of the social and historical development. But they are by-products of an important kind, since they are part of the mechanism by which the development propels itself. To illustrate this point, there are always at least two ideas of ‘justice’ (or of ‘freedom’ or of ‘equality’), and these two ideas differ very widely indeed. The one is the idea of ‘justice’ as the ruling class understands it, the other, the same idea as the oppressed class understands it. These ideas are, of course, products of the class situation, but at the same time they play an important part in the class struggle—they have to provide both sides with that good conscience which they need in order to carry on their fight."

"Marx’s moral theory is, of course, only the result of his view concerning the method of social science, of his sociological determinism, a view which has become rather fashionable in our day. All our opinions, it is said, including our moral standards, depend upon society and its historical state. They are the products of society or of a certain class situation. Education is defined as a special process by which the community attempts to ‘pass on’ to its members ‘its culture including the standards by which it would have them to live’, and the ‘relativity of educational theory and practice to a prevailing order’ is emphasized. Science, too, is said to depend on the social stratum of the scientific worker, etc."

In contrast to that rigid position on the “social determinism” of our ideas, there is usually a diversity of views available and that diversity provides scope for choice, for critical discussion, for the opportunity to choose between options and, more important, there is space to create new options and opportunities.

Marx’s determinism was in conflict with his activism and his moralism, so the end result is that people who try to take on board the whole package are reduced to confusion and contradiction on moral issues. They cannot demonstrate how to think our way through moral problems, especially the most important task of all - the critical appraisal of most fundamental and rarely articulated basic ideas that guide our efforts in social reform, just in case they are false or contradictory, thus causing our actions to produce the opposite of the intended outcomes.

Principled and humanitarian Marxists would have to be apalled at the outcome of the social revolutions that have been achieved under the red flag, but they seem to have difficlty in coming to grips with the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of radical reforms. The rascals!

Chapter 21 An Evaluation of the ProphecyChapter 23 The Sociology of Knowledge

Start of The Shorter OSE
The Open Society and its Enemies
Karl Popper