Chapter 15

Marxist Humanism and Ethics

Mihailo Marković

Mihailo Marković is professor in the faculty of philosophy of the University of Belgrade. He studied at the University of London and in 1961-1962 did research in the United States as a Ford Foundation grantee. In 1969-1970 he taught philosophy at the University of Michigan. Among his many works are Formalism in Contemporary Logic, The Dialectical Theory of Meaning, Logic and Philosophy, A Social Critique (in press).

The aim of this paper is to explore the possibilities of building up an ethical theory, starting from general assumptions of humanism implicit in the philosophy of Marx, and taking into account the methodological achievements of modern ethics.

In accordance with this aim, answers to the following questions should be given:

1. Can anyone who accepts the basic ideas of Marx speak clearly and consistently about an ideal in general and an ethical ideal in particular?

2. Are there elements in Marx’s philosophy which provide an adequate theoretical basis for the development of a humanist ethical theory?

3. What are the solutions to the fundamental ethical and metaethical problems from the Marxist point of view?



Critics of Marx claim that there is no place for a genuine ethical theory within the frame of Marxist historical materialism. The reasons they give follow.

1. The very concept of determinism rules out freedom of choice and moral responsibility. Without these two latter assumptions, no theory of morals is possible.

2. The idea that morality is based on the economic conditions of a given society tends to identify moral right with economic advantage. To say the least, then, such a moral theory applies only to a part of life—morality is conceived as a matter of property-interest. Even worse, the idea of moral “right” has no place in such a conception.

3. The thesis that morality, together with other forms of cultural superstructure, reflects the interests of a social class introduces a complete relativism. Thus, the universally human character of morals is denied, the moral problems of an individual do not exist. The problem, which of the conflicting sets or moral standards is preferable, is now reducible to the question, “which social class is more revolutionary?” This way of looking comes close to Hitler’s view that right is whatever promotes the interests of the German Volk.

4. For the moral to be subordinated to the political eventually leads to the acceptance of the old Machiavellian principle that ends justify means, and, of course, this principle is incompatible with morals in any ordinary sense.

The conclusion of such arguments seems to be that on the basis of Marx’s philosophy no ethical ideal and genuine ethical theory is possible. However, both the arguments and the conclusion are false, for they are incorrect presentations of the totality of Marx’s thought. [1]

The apparent conflicts between ethics and historical materialism can be easily resolved in the following way.

1. The concept of determinism in Marxism has a different, much more flexible meaning than usual. It is clear from Capital and other writings that Marx (as well as Engels in Anti-Dühring and Ludwig Feuerbach) conceived social laws as tendencies only. Although they restrict the possibilities of human action, they still leave several more or less probable alternatives open. It is up to men to choose and realize by their practical activity one or other of the possibilities. Marx’s idea from Theses on Feuerbach, that in speaking about the determination of men by historical circumstances and education one should not forget that circum-


stances are changed by men and that “the educator himself must be educated,” is essential here.

Man, for Marx, is an active, relatively free being (free within the limits of a partial physical and historical determination).

This freedom increases insofar as his knowledge and control of various operating, mutually neutralizing factors increase. As a consequence, there is not the slightest doubt that a normal adult person is morally responsible for his actions, the more so the more his awareness of various possible alternatives and their consequences prior to his action can be assumed.

2. In his last letters, Engels himself expressed his apprehension that Marx’s and his own repeated insistence on the importance of economic factors had been misunderstood. And he has explained, first, that the economic factor is only in the last analysis the decisive social factor which determines directly or indirectly all other social phenomena (and here again the word “determines” should be taken in a flexible, statistical sense). Second, various forms of social superstructure have their own, relatively independent logic of development, and can, in their turn, influence the development of the productive forces and the mode of production.

In such amended form, this is quite a sound conception, and any serious sociologist would hardly wish to reject it, although he might demand much more methodological rigor and empirical evidence.

It is absurd to present Marx as a champion of the identification of moral values with economic advantages. The exact opposite is the case. A certain degree of material well-being is, in his view, only a means, a necessary condition for the liberation from all other forms of human misery. His ultimate goal was a free, creative life for each individual, rich rather in sensate and spiritual content than in the amount of possessed goods.

3. Though Marx laid strong emphasis on the class character of morals, this was due to a compelling practical need to castigate moral ideals current in his time (for example, the ideas of natural rights—including right of private property, divine law, etc.). [2]

In fact, there is no doubt that Marx did not reduce human nature just to class nature. He made a distinction between constant “fixed drives which exist under all circumstances and which can be changed by social conditions only as far as form and direction are concerned” and “relative drives which owe their


origin only to a certain type of social organization.” (The drive for maximal economic gain he included in the second category.) Criticizing Bentham’s utilitarianism in Capital (vol. I, chap. 24, sect. 5) he says: “He that would criticize all human acts, movements, relations etc. by the principle of utility must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch.” In Anti-Dühring, one can find a section along this line, speaking about eternal truths in the field of morals. These are very rare, in Engels’ view, but they exist.

It is therefore quite compatible with Marxism to speak about a whole set of moral norms which transcend limits of class and epoch and which, in various, sometimes disguised forms, reappear in all historical forms of morality. Such would be, for example, norms prescribing fundamental duties toward children, parents, friends, and community; norms which tend to discount lying, cheating, stealing, killing, and which tend to bring certain elementary order into sexual relationships, etc.

Those elements in a set of moral standards which are relative to the specific interests and needs of a given class constitute only one layer of morals. However, these elements are particularly interesting just because they give specific character to a morality. The reason why Marxists avoided speaking about universal human morals is that those general values do not exist isolated, in themselves; they are always given in a specific form, con¬ joined with many norms of a variable, class nature.

However, these two come into conflict in all periods of crisis and degeneration in a society. There are at least two symptoms which indicate such a conflict: (1) members of the ruling class stop living up to their own morality—there is a widespread demoralization, cynicism, hypocrisy; (2) a strong opposition appears which criticizes the ruling class and the existing social system from a universally humanist point of view; by this time already, a new morality appears, which contains again all the traits of the general moral background plus some of the most important specific moral values of the descending class, plus the new moral demands of a new class leading the revolutionary movement.

No historical relativism is implied in this view. At any moment in any particular class-struggle one of the classes may desire to be more progressive, not only for economic or political reasons (fighting for a society with a more rational system of production, more economic and political freedom), but also for moral


reasons. A really progressive class speaks and acts in the name of the whole of humanity; in its morality, it incorporates all the universal human ideals which the ruling class is incapable of realizing. The important point is that any average, normally intelligent, and honest person confronted with such a morality would accept it, at least tacitly, provided that a discussion with him has not been conducted on an abstract level only, but in a concrete way—giving descriptions of various situations and types of action and asking for immediate moral reactions with subsequent analysis of these reactions. Of course, all this holds only on condition that the representatives of a new morality live up to their own higher standards. Otherwise they them¬ selves become cynics and hypocrites. As a consequence they would lose any chance of convincing others of the value of their supposedly new, higher morality. An ordinary man is absolutely right when he expects first to see the examples of a morally higher practice and not just to be taught morality in a theoretical way. And for a philosopher, it will be no great surprise to discover some new cases of the difference between theoretical declarations and practical conduct, and the difference between a general historical tendency and particular deviations. Insofar as he prefers to say anything about general tendencies, he can safely assert that the really progressive classes inherit all the achievements of a long humanist tradition, including all universally human moral demands.

In this perspective, it is not difficult to solve the problem of how to bridge a possible gap between the humanist aspirations of an individual and his loyalty to a class. When a class is really progressive, which, besides other things, implies that it fights for the realization of the humanist ideals of its time, the conflict is not likely to arise. There will be a full accord between the objectives of the individual and those of the social group to which he belongs. If he cannot put his heart into a particular cause which, he has been told, is the objective of his class, he must solve the dilemma in one of the various possible ways. [3]

In conclusion it might be said that a humanist conception of morality involves a recognition that morals play a plurality of roles at various levels.

1. In a society composed of classes, nations, groups and individuals with overlapping and more or less opposed interests,


it serves to bring to life a certain necessary amount of harmony and cooperation.

2. It rationalizes the needs and goals of a social class. The prevailing morality in a society is, among other things, a justification of the way of life of the most influential class.

3. Morality, no doubt, plays an extraordinarily important guiding role in the life of the individual; it provides a set of standards without which his orientation in life would hardly be possible; even more than that, observance of these standards is one of the deepest sources of spiritual satisfaction and happiness.

4. In this epoch of revolutions and wars, hot and cold, politics has been occupying an increasingly important position in relation to all other forms of cultural activity. As a matter of fact, moral demands, as well as legal regulations, scientific objectivity, freedom of artistic expression, etc., have often been sacrificed to immediate political goals. This is true of both capitalist and socialist countries. And as a matter of fact, some Marxists (although by no means only Marxists) have been behaving as though they accepted “the end-justifies-the-means” principles.

Marxist humanism rejects both this principle and the practice of permanent subordination of morals (and science, and law, and art) to politics. The struggle for political emancipation of the oppressed social groups is just one of the fields in which human emancipation takes place. Cultural and moral revolution in particular are certainly not less important than the political reconstruction of a society. Certainly, morality itself, as an expression of the interests of a particular class, is politically colored. But, on the other hand, any political party which claims to speak in the name of the whole of humanity must follow moral values in its political struggle. And it certainly must not overlook how closely connected are the moral values of ends and means. Noble goals can be realized only by noble men.

There is no doubt that the use of bad, degrading means morally degrades those who use them. Men change and their practical activity is the most important factor determining the evolution of their consciousness. Thus it may happen that, after a time, hardly anybody continues to fight for the original goal. What eventually comes into existence is likely to be something vastly different, and, for the most part, morally inferior to the initial idea.


This does not mean that friendly persuasion remains the only legitimate means of political struggle and that in principle no force and no revolution can be allowed from a moral point of view. That would be absurd. Very often the only morally good choice of action is the use of force against those who use it against the weak and helpless.

What follows from the emphasis on unity among goals and means is that the same moral standards must be used in both cases. Any different attitude is both morally indefensible and self-defeating.

The conclusion from these considerations seems to be that a humanist ethical theory is wholly compatible with a sufficiently flexible and modernized interpretation of the main theses of historical materialism. The philosophy of Marx is a humanist philosophy. Its central problem is the place of man in the universe, what is and what ought to be his relation toward nature on the one hand, and toward other human beings and society as a whole, on the other.

This philosophy contains a number of notions and principles which are relevant to ethics. The key concept among them is that of disalienation. To be alienated means, in general, not to be what man could be and ought to be: a free, creative, fully developed, socialized being. That from which man is alienated should not be taken in the ontological sense—as a fixed human essence or nature, which man sometime in the past, perhaps in primitive communities, had possessed and then lost. That would be either a really bad metaphysics or an empirically false idealization of primitive society.

If taken as a descriptive or explanatory concept, general human nature is constituted by (statistically) permanent features of human behavior in history. This is a concept of empirical sciences—anthropology, history, social psychology, etc. When speaking about alienation within the frames of sociology and ethics what is meant is human nature as a normative concept, as a value, in the sense of what man ought to be.

These two are closely connected. In order to be realistic and applicable, any conception as to what man ought to be must be based on the objective estimate of the real possibilities of his evolution, which in its turn can be established only on the basis of a reliable knowledge about man as he actually is.

Man actually is a practical being; he tends to change his surroundings, and whether his activity will have the form of


creation or destruction, or just dull routine work, depends on various circumstances. Man actually is a rational being, he acts with purpose and has reasons to believe that what he does will bring about the desired result (although he may be wrong or his desire may be bad). Also he actually is a social being—he cannot live except in society, and even when his interests are in sharpest conflict with those of society as a whole, he tries to establish at least their temporary unity in various forms of rationalization—in politics, ethics, philosophy, etc.

Ideology is not created in order to cheat others but in a sincere craving for social justification. Further, it can be added to any description of actual human nature that man is a being who evolves rapidly; he develops his knowledge, he uses more and more adequate material objects in order to satisfy his basic needs, he develops more and more sophisticated cultural needs, he creates more and more complex and efficient forms of organization, etc. Lastly, man has, as a matter of fact, always been free (in a rather restricted sense). It is difficult to think of any kind of human communities in which people, at least in some situations, have not been aware of more than one possibility of action and have not been free from compulsion as to which to choose. [4]

Such empirical generalizations correlated with an objective description of contemporary society provide a basis for the analysis of various possibilities of further development of society and human conditions. Among the results of an analysis of this kind would be such general empirical hypo¬ theses as the following: (1) If the present-day armaments race continues indefinitely, the destruction of modern civilization would be possible, even very probable; (2) if the bureaucracy became a new ruling class and if science and technology developed in opposition to all humanist considerations, a society similar to Huxley’s and Orwell’s vision would arise; (3) if private property in the means of production were abolished and various forms of self-management of producers were substituted for the state, a society without antagonistic conflicts among groups of people would emerge, etc. Predictions of this kind are scientific in the sense of being verifiable and falsifiable extrapolations of actual trends of development in present-day society.

It is typical of Marxist humanism that it is based on such scientific considerations. [5] In this conception there is no dis-


crepancy between facts and values, knowledge and ideals, insofar as one takes as a value, as an ideal, something which is really possible and which one knows to be possible. It still has the character of a value, of an ideal, because it is an extrapolation into the future which has been chosen among other alternatives. [6]

This choice is based not only on knowledge but also on certain value considerations. One is likely to accept the ideal of thorough-going human emancipation only insofar as one is deeply disturbed and dissatisfied by all those negative aspects of human existence in contemporary society, which Marx has embraced by the term “alienation.” These are as follows:

1. Man has lost control over the products of his own physical and mental activity. Instead of being a means to satisfy one of his needs, any such product (be it money, church, state, political organization, etc.) becomes an end in itself, a strange, unknown power above him, which enslaves him instead of being ruled by him.

2. Instead of participating in creative, stimulating work, instead of performing various social functions of which he is capable, man is forced to spend his best energy in dull, automatic work just to obtain the material means of existence.

3. He has no opportunities to fulfill his various potential qualities, to develop and satisfy various more refined needs.

His existence remains one-sided, poor, animal-like—he remains at the level of his basic animal needs for eating, sleeping, sexual gratification, and the most primitive forms of entertainment.

4. In his struggle for more property and power, man becomes estranged from his fellow men. Exploitation, mistrust, conflict, envy, hatred dominate his relationship with other men.

All these tendencies on the moral plane lead to a narrow morality devised to rationalize and justify a limited, basically egoistic way of living. In order to give it a broader objective basis, its source is sought in an imaginary transcendent power, in God, not in man. But an alienated man, being essentially an egoist, will never live up even to that restricted morality imposed by the church—he will too often be a hypocrite, a desperately split personality.

When one has a feeling of revolt against a state of affairs in which man is so degraded, both one’s criticism and one’s ideal for the future are not an arbitrary and temporary reaction; they are based on some very old and deeply rooted and, at least in abstracto, almost generally accepted human evaluations. [7] They


can be verbally expressed in the form of such preferences as: all other conditions being equal, it is better to be free than enslaved, to create instead of to destroy, to act in a way which would satisfy both individual and social goals than to pursue the former only and to disregard the latter; it is better to live in peace than in war, in love and friendship than in mutual hatred, in harmony than in isolation; it is more just if people have equal rights than if there are undeserved privileges, and also, it is more just if certain goods can be enjoyed by all or a majority than by a minority; it is more reasonable and more likely to lead to a happy life if a man develops his abilities than if he neglects them, etc.

The humanist ideal of Marx corresponds completely to such deeply rooted, tacitly assumed preferences.

Future man ought to free himself both from subjection to external natural necessities and from slavery to blind social forces—his own products. Future man ought to develop creative forms of his practical activity and to free himself from imposed degrading labor. He ought to stop the destruction of material goods and human lives which particularly takes place in time of war. He ought to bring his individual interests into harmony with the interests of other people and society as a whole. He ought not to have any economic, political and cultural privileges— which implies the abolition of class and caste distinctions, even if it does not also imply complete equality among individuals. Future man ought not to exploit other men; in other words, he ought never to treat a man as a means but always as an end. Instead of making desperate efforts to have as much as possible, he ought to try to be as fully, as richly as possible. Therefore he ought to develop all his potential qualities, all his human senses, and to affirm his individuality in a variety of relations to the world.

This ethical ideal was expressed by Marx in his youth. It is still unsurpassed in modem culture. Marx devoted the rest of his life to laying down scientific foundations for it, to showing that such a complete liberation of man could be realized in the contemporary scene only through the emancipation of the proletariat and the abolition of private property in the means of production.

This, in turn, is not a mere dream, a utopia, but the necessary outcome of historical development if men act in that direction. Now, this “if” makes a whole world of difference. Those who quietly ignore it claim that ethics is incompatible with Marxism.


Those who know well that without it “Marxism” would have little in common with the philosophy of Marx, have the right to claim that hardly any other contemporary philosophy provides such a rich and flexible theoretical basis for the development of a satisfactory ethical theory.

From the main principles of such an activist and dynamic philosophy, there follows a conception of ethics which not only analyzes and explains what morality is (in the totality of its forms, dimensions and relations), but also evaluates and proposes what morality ought to be. Thus, ethics has both theoretical and practical tasks. The theoretical tasks of ethics are: to clarify the basic concepts of moral discourse, to establish general criteria of moral evaluation and methods of settling moral issues, to explain the relations of morality toward various other social phenomena, to examine philosophical assumptions and conditions of applicability of various moral doctrines. The practical task of ethics is to contribute to the moral improvement of human life by criticizing existing morals and laying down moral ideals appropriate to human society in the given epoch.

Many philosophers would certainly object to this conception of the subject-matter of ethics as being too broad. But the natural reply to this is that perhaps their whole conception of philosophy is too narrow.

As a matter of fact, throughout the history of philosophy, philosophers have been concerned, in one form or another, with all the enumerated problems. What is even more relevant here is the fact that these problems are still of enormous importance, and that there is nobody who should be more concerned with them—certainly not the specialized scientist, or politician or newspaperman.

The rejection of all other tasks of ethics except the analysis of the language of moral theories is based on the assumption that philosophy is neutral toward all possible ethical theories and moral systems, uninterested in their evaluation and, in general, too pure to take any stand on moral issues.

Such an attitude is unacceptable to a humanist philosopher, particularly one who, following Marx, seeks not only to explain and understand the world but also to change it, to improve it. And while he may be in great sympathy with all demands for clarity, and particularly with the rejection of any form of obscurantism, he does not feel that very precise trivialities would


be a great gain either. Therefore, he will refuse to accept any framework which leaves him as the only possible choice, the sacrifice of all those philosophical problems which are of real interest, and directly relevant for human lives. Fighting against various forms of alienation, he will not overlook this particular one: the alienation of the theoretician who has completely appropriated as his end what was previously designed to be only a means, who has reduced all richness and complexity of his subject to just one dull and rather sterile dimension, who has estranged himself from his fellow-thinkers who deal with his field from various angles, by deliberately closing himself in the ivory tower of his metaethical purity.

The most important metaethical questions for any contemporary theory are: (1) what is “value” in general, “moral value” in particular, (2) what are the meanings of basic ethical terms such as “good,” “right,” “ought,” (3) what is specific for ethical judgments; how do they differ from statements of other types, and (4) what are the methods of settling moral issues?

1. The concept of value is one of the fundamental philosophical categories. Not only are the basic concepts of ethics, aesthetics, political science and law value-terms, such as “good,” “beautiful,” “progressive,” “just”; even in the very foundations of logic and epistemology we find certain value-demands such as clarity, precision, exactness, simplicity, adequacy, objectivity, completeness, elegance, etc. Truth itself is a cognitive value of a statement or a theory.

The concept of value implies always a subject who evaluates— be it an individual (in which sense we can speak about a personal value) or a social group (family, class, nation, etc.), or man in general, in which case we can speak about a universal human value, at least for a given period of time. To say that an x is a value in relation to a specifiable subject means that x has properties such that they satisfy certain (cognitive or emotive or both) needs of the given subject.

What is specific for moral values is: (1) that they constitute a special kind of object—certain patterns of human actions; (2) that they are relative either to humanity as a whole or to very large groups of people (whole communities, social classes) for a considerable period of time—very rarely do individuals have their own purely personal moral values, different from those of other individuals and nations; (3) that actions with positive moral value are those which satisfy a particular kind of human


need—the need for social harmony, coordination, social endorsement of some types of behavior, and discouragement of some other types; above all perhaps, a need, deeply rooted in every individual, to have a certain set of standards in accordance with which to live.

So conceived, moral values are neither objective nor subjective, in the absolute sense of these terms. They do not belong to the sphere of absolute essences in themselves (which only come to be exemplified in a particular human moral code). They, like all other values, are relative to man, since in a world without man nothing would be either good or bad. On the other hand, moral values are not purely subjective and arbitrary, varying from individual to individual; insofar as they satisfy certain pervasive and profound social needs, they are interpersonal, objective.

2. The terms most often used to express moral values are “good,” “right,” “ought” which, though they have a wider usage, we shall consider here only in the context of moral discourse. They all have a common core of meaning, as pointed out in the preceding paragraph. They differ only insofar as, in in characterizing an action as “good,” we emphasize the quality of the object (action) in question, and in calling it “right” stress conformity with the rules of the accepted moral code, whereas in saying that something “ought” to be done, the emphasis is on action, and we directly (and not only indirectly as in the previous cases) try to encourage a certain kind of practical activity.

3. Speaking about the difference in sense between moral judgment and other kinds of statements, we should distinguish among various dimensions of sense. The problem can be analyzed into three different questions: (1) what kind of mental states would the ethical judgments express, (2) is there a specific kind of objects which they designate., and (3) what is the practical function, what is the expected effect of their assertion? Some ethical theorists disagree just insofar as they lay emphasis on only one of these various dimensions of meaning (emotive, descriptive, prescriptive). A theory constructed by the dialectical method would tend (1) to take into account all these dimensions as various aspects of a complex phenomenon, (2) to avoid making hard and fast lines both among these various dimensions and between the meaning of the ethical judgments (and value judgments in general), on the one hand, and of all other statements, including cognitive judgments, on the other. [8]


The solution, then, would be that ethical judgments differ from cognitive statements in all three previously mentioned aspects of meaning, but the difference is not too sharp; there is a continuity between them.

So, (1) there are certainly specific kinds of psychological processes which are associated with ethical judgments. They express our emotive attitude toward a given type of action, our approval or disapproval, our preference for one over the other, our feeling of guilt, etc. (2) There is a specific kind of social, cultural objects, moral values, to which ethical expressions are related. Keeping a given promise, care of children, the old and sick, loyalty to one’s country, a friend, etc., are such objects— objects in the sense of being patterns of behavior which are intersubjectively approved. Also (3) there is a specific practical function which ethical judgments perform: they not only convey information, but also to a much greater extent try to evoke feelings of approval and sense of duty in others. They tend to encourage or discourage others to act in a definite way.

However, the demarcation between ethical and cognitive judgments should not be construed as very sharp. Not only are there many borderline cases which it would be difficult to classify as either purely ethical or purely cognitive statements; it is also the case that the former do not express only our effective attitude, nor do the latter describe only outside matters of fact. The point is that whenever we have a moral judgment and know the society (with its moral code) in which the judgment was made, we may give a reliable description of the kind of human behavior to which the judgment refers. This shows that to the members of the society, as well as to all those who are sufficiently familiar with the historical and cultural conditions of its existence, an ethical judgment conveys, among other things, a certain amount of information about the human action which is being evaluated. On the other hand, there are many perfectly good descriptive statements, particularly in social sciences and ordinary life, which contain an element of moral evaluation. For example: “In country X 3 percent of the landowners keep 55 percent of all land, whereas 78 percent of the peasant population own only 16 percent.” “At the entrance to the gas chamber at Dachau, the sign on the door reads ‘bathroom.’” “The degree of radioactivity above the place X is now three hundred times greater than normal,” etc. What is specific for ethical judgments is only that what is here only


implied—the tacit condemnation of a certain kind of human practice—is there explicitly stated and stressed using special moral terms.

4. How can moral issues be settled? The case where opponents share some basic moral principles and, consequently, some basic criteria of evaluation does not present particular difficulties.

It can be more or less easily shown that one of the opposing moral judgments contradicts accepted basic norms and that it must be given up—unless the person who asserts it prefers to abandon one or more of his fundamental values.

Many moral philosophers, particularly emotivists, hold that in the case where opponents disagree in basic principles the settlement of a moral issue is impossible in principle.

There is a temptation to think that a Marxist should subscribe to such a view. If every morality is the reflection of the particular interests of a given social class, people who belong to different classes would necessarily disagree on basic values and could not possibly settle their differences in particular questions.

However, a Marxist need not hold such a simplified view. A certain cautiousness and flexibility concerning universal statements is in the very nature of dialectical thinking. Most empirical generalizations are only statistically true—an allowance for exceptions and for deviations must always be made. Besides, classes, like all other things, should be construed as processes, as objects in constant flux, which implies that there are always individuals who are materially or ideologically abandoning one class and joining another one—this holds particularly for intellectuals. So, what is accepted on the macrolevel does not preclude various possibilities at the microlevel. Settling a moral issue remains always such a possibility even for opponents who belong to hostile classes.

The method here should be to explore the consequences of the particular moral judgment in question and of the whole network of reasons, including the fundamental principles, behind it. While the two opponents examine what kind of moral attitude each one of them would take, acting in various situations, or judging various kinds of human actions under specified conditions, any one of several results can eventually be achieved:

1. It would be natural to expect each opponent to grasp better the meaning of his rival’s verbal declarations. Each of them would probably find it necessary to add certain qualifications to the sentences in which he expresses his judgments and norms. And it might be discovered that they have had different kinds of situations


in their minds and that in spite of the apparent sharp disagreement between their statements they share a basically identical underlying moral attitude which finds its expression in different norms under different social conditions.

2. In the course of such examination, one of the opponents might experience an unbearable conflict between his belief in certain fundamental (more or less abstract) norms and his immediate moral reactions to certain described or actually experienced types of action. He might play the role of a cynic, or of an egoist, or of a puritan; he might try to defend the basic morals of the complete individualism of a laissez-faire society, or the means-justifies-the-end principle of a revolutionary à la Stalin. In abstracto, while conducting purely theoretical discussions, he might be convinced that he is playing his role sincerely and that his heart is fully in what he says. And still it might happen that in concreto, when confronted with particular cases in which he would have to decide how to act, he would find it utterly impossible to act in accordance with his own norms or to justify anybody’s acting so. This can happen to anyone who has accepted a morality or pretends to have accepted it in a more or less verbal form without a practical challenge in his own life, in his own immediate moral experience.

In deciding moral questions, this immediate moral experience has an analogous role to the one which observation has in deciding cognitive problems. It is true that the former is much more variable. But it does not follow that one should underestimate the amount of uniformity which is much greater here than in the area of abstract verbal declarations. At any rate, the appeal to moral experience is by far the most hopeful procedure in settling moral issues between opponents who disagree in basic principles.

It is on this concrete level of immediate moral responses to various specified kinds of behavior that a Marxist humanist would expect very strong support both for his criticism of the existing human relationships in the contemporary world and for his ethical ideals of a future world.


1. It can be granted that in many Marxist writings, even in those of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, there are some formulations which are too


rigid and one-sided and which (particularly when they are taken out of theoretical and historical context) can call for strong criticism. Even today, some Marxists disregard all the nuances, qualifications, and counter-instances in which Marx’s writings are so rich, and there is a neglect of the earlier manuscripts which lay down a sufficiently broad humanist foundation for the whole of this philosophy.

2. Besides, Marx has never been in the position of having to develop a complete theory of morals and of having to formulate all those commonplaces which are shared by almost all ethical theories. So it was natural enough for him to lay stress on what he considered new and specific—his criticism of ideology, his thesis that the prevailing morality in every society reflects the interests of the leading class and serves only to rationalize its conditions of existence.

3. For some time he might think he is probably wrong and try to be loyal. That means that there is either too little self-confidence in him or a great confidence in the leaders of his class. However, this cannot last very long, if he wants to preserve his personal integrity. Once he loses confidence in his leaders or has a strong feeling or moral obligation to act in a different way than most of the members of his class, he has no other choice but to act in accordance with his own convictions. If he is wrong he will realize it later—but he might also be right and by his actions help to change things for the better. In any case, if the class to which he belongs is conservative or reactionary or has an inadequate leadership which tends to act in a morally wrong way, there is no question of loyalty; one has to rely upon one’s personal feeling of moral obligation.

4. Processes in nature and society are regulated by laws. However, these laws are not strict in the sense of excluding any chance events and any possibility of human freedom. Laws should be construed as trends, as most probable patterns of behavior of things and living organisms. In relation to a relevant law an individual event may constitute a deviation (chance) because of: (a) the action of a more powerful law outside the ordinary frame of reference, (b) a change in the initial conditions of the system in question, (c) the action of a variable factor inside the system.

Living in a world in which there is both order and chance, man is able to behave as a free agent only in so far as he: (a) becomes aware of both classes of determining factors—those of the external situation (objective conditions, natural and social laws) and internal determining factors (traits of character, interests, belief) which delimit his possibilities of choice and action; (b) is ready to resist both external and internal compulsion and to take the decision which best corresponds to his basic convictions and values.


5. There is no other kind of knowledge which is so objective and reliable as scientific knowledge. Whatever has been and is can best be known by using the scientific method (i.e., by expressing our experiences and thoughts in clear, publicly communicable terms, by applying logical forms of reasoning, by testing all generalizations empirically). What the alternatives of the future course of events are and what the probabilities of the various alternatives are can also best be known by using scientific methods.

On the other hand, which one of these alternatives we prefer to realize, no matter how probable it might be, depends on our needs and interests, on our conception of what kind of human life and society are good for man.

6. This is an element in Marx’s thought which has often been misunderstood. His philosophy is essentially an activist one, his determinism is not fatalism, his communism is not something which must come no matter how people behave—it is something for which they must struggle and make efforts and sacrifices. This presupposes that they must choose to do so—they are not automata governed completely by blind external forces.

7. Although all knowledge and evaluation are relative to the conditions of place and time, relative to the degree of development of human culture, there are, on the other hand, certain elements (truths, values) which survive through various epochs and have a lasting human significance. These human (not absolute) constants constitute the very basis of all knowledge and evaluation.

8. While we analyze objects we simplify them and tend to draw demarcation lines which are too sharp. It is essential to be aware of this process of simplification and to supplement analysis by a subsequent process of synthesis, of the re-establishment of continuity between different (and often opposite) elements of a whole. Provisionally making rigid distinctions and subsequently loosening them by the discovery of common points and transitional cases is an important dialectical regulative principle of controlled inquiry.

SOURCE: Marković, Mihailo. “Marxist Humanism and Ethics,” in Dialogues on the Philosophy of Marxism: From the Proceedings of the Society for the Philosophical Study of Dialectical Materialism, edited by John Somerville and Howard L. Parsons (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974), pp. 212-229.

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