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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (section 3i - Marx)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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3i)      Marx


Karl Marx (1818-83) offers a form of eternalism indebted to Hegel but in many respects radically new. It was new not only in the radicalism of its political implications but in the degree of influence of scientism[1] over its philosophical expression. This degree of influence is so great that it may seem controversial to claim that Marx was an eternalist rather than an adherent of scientism. Whilst I shall put forward what I consider a reasonably strong argument here that both Marx and Marxism are more fundamentally eternalist in orientation (and I believe this argument to be helpful in delineating the diversity of ways in which eternalism gains philosophical expression), it must also be stressed that even if this argument fails, the more fundamental contention that Marx was a dualist, and that the failures of Marxism to achieve its moral objectives are due to its dualism, is likely to remain.


I have already commented above on Marx’s view of alienation[2], where I argued that although he correctly identifies alienation at a social and political level (which he ascribes to economic processes), Marx does not sufficiently recognise the psychological component of alienation. The assumption behind this is that of the priority of sociology over psychology, a foundational assumption which I shall discuss first.

i)                    The priority of sociology


Marx, like Kant and Hegel before him, began with some non-dualistic premises but failed to follow those premises through to their full implications. The avoidance of the dualistic oppositions which afflict philosophy was for Marx to be found in the redefinition of philosophical problems in socio-economic terms. At this level they were resolvable, because sociology, with the same ultimate determinism which Hegel found in “Spirit”, could explain the conditions which gave rise to false oppositions in material terms. At least to the early Marx, the need to overcome dualistic oppositions in this way appeared important.

It can be seen how subjectivism and objectivism, spiritualism and materialism, activity and passivity lose their opposition and thus their existence as opposites only in a social situation; it can be seen how the solution of theoretical opposition is only possible in a practical way, only through the practical energy of man, and their solution is thus by no means an exercise in epistemology but a real problem of life that philosophy could not solve just because it conceived of it as a purely theoretical task.[3] 


The avoidance of a merely theoretical approach (based on the interdependence of theory with practice, a key point of non-dualism) thus seems to be confused by Marx with the avoidance of a psychological level of causal explanation. The priority of sociology is assumed because Marx, at least initially, sees it as the method of dissolving the dualisms which Hegel had failed to remove through a purely theoretical idealism. In the place of idealism Marx believed he could appeal to clear material fact at a socio-economic level, so he gives causal priority to material explanation rather than merely noting a relationship of mutual causality between sociology and psychology. Since philosophical dualisms were based on socio-economic conflicts inherent in “bourgeois relations of production”[4], he believed that a predictable socio-economic movement to other relations of production would remove those dualisms.


The case for the priority of sociology over psychology has even been adopted by as strong an opponent of Marx as Popper[5], who quotes with approval Marx’s saying that “It is not the consciousness of man that determines his existence – rather, it is his social existence that determines his consciousness”[6]. This implies, he says, that laws of social life are not reducible to what he calls “psychological laws of ‘human nature’”, and he goes on to attack “psychologism” which claims that they are. Whilst praising the methodological individualism[7] of a psychological over a collectivist approach, he nevertheless claims that “The attempt to reduce the facts of our social environment to psychological facts forces us into speculations about origins and developments”[8] because individual purpose must be traced in them. Such an approach, Popper claims, does not take into account the extent to which human social institutions are the unintended by-products of human action rather than the result of conscious intention. For both Popper and Marx, the rationality imposed on human actions by the social environment in which they occur offers better grounds for their predictability than any more fundamental, and psychologically defined, human nature.


Popper’s argument here is part of his rejection of historicism[9], a doctrine which asserts holistic predictabilities. The crux of his argument thus seems to be that psychological accounts of universal human tendencies must carry with them claims of universality, implying dogmatic value judgements about what is or is not universal. This argument bears a similarity to Marx’s criticisms of Hegel, in which Marx appeals to the real and relative values created by human productive activities rather than universal values which are claimed to exist purely on the basis of the nature of consciousness[10].


Whether in its stronger form (claiming the autonomy of sociology) or its weaker (asserting causal priority but allowing psychology a supporting descriptive role), this argument depends fundamentally on a false dichotomy between freewill and determinism which takes universal psychological claims to imply the independence of a metaphysically-defined subject from its conditions. For Marx, in opposition to Hegel’s identification of freedom in the individual with universal Spirit, it is the idealist free self which is rejected in favour of a socio-economic predictability. Psychological explanation, even if it is accepted as providing a description of an individual, can thus never provide any account of universality. The distorting influence of the ego is here identified with the standpoint of the individual, as that standpoint is assumed to give rise to the illusion of freewill and its relationship to a universal framework of value. From a non-dualist standpoint, however, there is no necessity for making any such identification. To form a hypothesis about a psychological process which occurs universally in every individual is then not necessarily to make an implicit dogmatic claim, through a theory of human nature, about a value against which every individual should be measured. Rather such hypotheses are entirely compatible with those of sociology, since both amount to attempts to make an impersonal description of patterns of human nature, both limited by the cultural assumptions enshrined in such hypotheses and by the limitations on the ways in which such theories can be correlated with observation[11].


The claim that sociology takes priority over psychology, by rejecting an implicit doctrine of freewill in universal psychological theories, at the same time tends to create a determinism. This is a determinism Marx certainly adopted in relation to economic forces and their effect on social and political conditions, even if it is more debatable whether he was a determinist about individual actions[12]. This determinism is created by the metaphysical assumption accompanying Marx’s sociological theory that such theory could be complete in its explanation of the broad pattern of historical events. By the conflation of the individual level of experience with the belief in an unconditioned self, both of which are rejected, an “independent” sociology attempts to remove all possibility of even hypothesised grounds for objective value-judgements, and is left with what is supposedly a mere description of  human activity without any valid grounds of evaluation. This perspective is again reflected in Marx, as it is denied that there is any “morality” which is not merely an ideological instrument of economic forces[13].


This influential position of Marx is scientistic[14]. By itself it would suggest only an ethical relativism, but Marx attempts the much more remarkable feat of deriving a universal value from this sociological perspective. He claims to be making predictions based on an empirically-supported hypothesis, but in doing so to have discovered the universally-valuable end-point of history. This further move is one which Popper disagrees with and indeed attacks on grounds of its political implications as well as its epistemological failings. Its most fundamental epistemological failing is the assumption of methodological holism, which I shall go on to discuss.


ii)                  Methodological holism


Marx’s methodological holism consists in the view that definite predictions can be made about general trends in human history, based on a consideration of that history as a whole, whilst specific individual human actions cannot necessarily be predicted in the same way. In The Poverty of Historicism[15] Popper attacked a formal position which at least resembles Marx’s on this issue, identifying what he took to be its presuppositions. The general basis of Popper’s attack is to point out the metaphysical assumptions and the difficulties of verification in the historicist approach, culminating in the key claim that wholes cannot be scientifically studied[16], implying that no holistic understanding of history can justifiably claim scientific legitimacy. Popper argues that in order to observe or comment on anything we must necessarily focus on certain of its parts or aspects, and thus any attempt to verify or falsify any hypothesis about a whole is doomed to failure. He distinguishes a “whole” from a structural feature such as symmetry, the study of which is in fact that of only an aspect. In order to make claims about a whole, according to Popper, we have to turn to intuitive methods and to make metaphysical assumptions about what aspects of an object are “essential” to it. 


Popper’s argument here does appear to apply to Marx’s historical determinism, since Marx’s analysis does not merely consider economic processes as a structural feature of human existence, but claims that economic processes are universally determinative of human nature.  Popper’s argument also appears to be sound insofar as it merely points out limitations of scientific knowledge about wholes: in effect, that any theory composed of language is necessarily approximate in its representation of objects. Where the argument is more dubious is in the respects in which it appears to assume that determinate knowledge of parts is possible in contrast. Any part, after all, can be re-described as a new whole. Popper’s objections to holistic methodology thus turn out to apply to claims of determinable knowledge at any level. Even if Marx’s view is understood as a determinism of parts, then, it is open to the same objections.


The weaknesses of Marx’s holism are thus the weaknesses of any form of empiricism that tries to draw determinate conclusions from the senses. Marx’s theory is more likely to lead to dogmatism than a more provisional sociological theory, but the difficulties in falsifying it are due to its dogmatism rather than its scope: for even though Marx’s holistic scope is interdependent with his dogmatism, the alternative extreme of methodological individualism could just as easily manifest dogmatism.


At times its seems that Marx recognised this point, at least implicitly with regard to particular of his doctrines. The cornerstone of his socio-economic analysis, for example, is the notion of class. Yet classes as entities do not have a determinate nature: for even Marx’s way of analysing class division varies in different writings[17]. In one sense a class is simply a group of individuals who have banded together at a particular time to promote a common socio-economic interest: and in recognising this Marx seems to recognise the claims of methodological individualism. On the other hand, however, individuals seem to be powerless in the face of class movements, their behaviour judged entirely predictable within class terms. Both these aspects of his view of classes are acknowledged together in The German Ideology:

The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of existence predestined, and hence have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class, become subsumed under it.[18]


Marx here seems to see individualistic and holistic views of a given class as existing in tension, but nevertheless, due to his belief in the priority of sociology, it is at the holistic level that he develops his theory and his further claims. At a different level, however, it is possible to contrast a methodological individualism with a methodological holism with regard to classes in relation to the whole of society. Because Marx saw classes as existing only in opposition to each other, however, it is at this level that he was prepared to make the biggest claims and he believed his contribution to class analysis to be distinctive. The ambiguities which exist in Marx the socio-economic analyst disappear and Marx the ideologue emerges. In a letter to Weydemeyer in 1852 he wrote:

…No credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society….What I did that was new was to prove: (1) That the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3)that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society….[19] 


Marx’s determinate views about the class system as a whole are not based on his account of classes (of the kind quoted above from The German Ideology), and his attempts at balancing methodological individualism and methodological holism in his account of class do not appear to influence his central values: rather he selects only the holistic features of that account to support a value position that he has already dogmatically adopted. I shall be giving more support to this general claim in the next subsection through a consideration of Marx’s view of ideology.


iii)                Idealism and ideology 


One way in which Marx attempted to reach a more secure basis for value-distinctions was by inverting Hegel’s idealism into a materialism. Marx wanted to replace the philosophical belief that the progress of history was ruled by ideas with a teleological interpretation of empirical events. The criticism of Hegel and Hegelianism found in The German Ideology thus centres around the rejection of “ideology”, which is here used in the sense of “Hegelian idealism”. Marx seems to identify this “ideology” with philosophy itself at times, or at least with philosophical language, understood in the light of the Hegelian belief that it has some special representational value apart from ordinary language which will enable it to grasp the supreme reality. This “ideological” belief about language is contrasted with a “scientific” Marxian approach which represents a truer material reality.

Where speculation ends - in real life - there real, positive science begins: the representation of the practical activity, of the practical process of development of men. Empty talk about consciousness ceases, and real knowledge has to take its place. When reality is depicted, philosophy as an independent branch of knowledge loses its medium of existence. At the best its place can only be taken by a summing-up of the most general results, abstractions which arise from the observation of the historical development of men.[20]


In thus apparently heralding the end of philosophy, Marx is attempting to replace one kind of representationalist assumption with another. The basic representationalist idea that the significance of language arises from its correspondence with reality remains, but the most significant kind of abstract representation shifts from one of an underlying consciousness to one of an underlying material process. In this way he can claim that idealist philosophy has been superseded by materialist “science”.


However, the assumptions involved in the empiricist form of representationalism that Marx adopts make him just as much of an idealist as Hegel. Marx does not offer a developed epistemology, but in order to make empirical predictions has to assume a firm basis of knowledge through scientific theorisation and observation. In The German Ideology, at least, these correct scientific procedures are contrasted with “ideological” claims to knowledge which merely reflect the class interests of those advocating them. Marx must thus assume something like the Stoic phantasia kataleptike in order to support his claims to knowledge of economic determinism: there must be certain areas of knowledge where certainty is possible (in the form of a representation which corresponds to the object) due to the material nature of the object observed. The Hegelian understanding of a mentally-constructed world is here just projected onto a supposedly independent material reality in disregard of the constraints on scientific understanding, simultaneously ruling out the possibility of any unknowable or unrepresentable reality beyond this.


This account of Marx’s claim to knowledge could be disputed in several ways. The most basic of these is to claim that Marx was not in fact as dogmatic as this, but held his beliefs in a more tentative, truly scientific spirit. Thus Allen Wood writes:

Marx’s belief in the historical inevitability of certain social changes, whether or not it is correct, is based on his assessment of the whole range of empirical circumstances which he views as affecting the outcome in the particular case. It is never, as many of his critics would have us believe, simply a matter of dogmatic guesswork inspired by a priori speculative doctrines.[21]


Wood seems to assume here that “assessment of the whole range of empirical circumstances” and “dogmatic guesswork inspired by a priori speculative doctrines” are entirely distinct options. The nature of Marx’s dogmatism, however, was more likely to lie in his attitude to the assessment of empirical data. The nature of these dogmatic assumptions in empiricism is something I shall go into in more detail in chapter 4[22]. In the case of Marx, however, a more important point in supporting the charge of dogmatism lies in the ways in which these allegedly tentative empirical hypotheses were used as a basis of value-judgement both by Marx and (particularly) by his followers. Even if Marx himself escapes the charge, many of his followers illustrate the extent to which his doctrines can easily be dogmatically abused. This is a point to which I shall return in considering Marxist ethics in 3.i.iv.


An alternative objection to this view might place more emphasis on Marx’s theory of ideology and stress that he did not (as might initially appear from a reading of The German Ideology) necessarily exempt his own doctrines from the category of ideology. This would imply that Marx merely thought of himself as making knowledge-claims which, though partial, were correctly aligned with the productive forces which drive human history. Marx might say that his claims to knowledge did not emanate from some absolute vantage-point, but that his own vantage point was that of proletarian ideology rather than that of any other class, and the proletariat’s destined role in history made them uniquely free of the distortions which accompanied other claims to knowledge.


This claim could be supported by the useful clarification Wood makes between three distinct senses in which Marx uses the term “ideology”: (1) As an alternative term for Hegelian idealism, (2) As functional ideology, namely any belief which serves the interests of a class, and (3) as ideological illusion (or false consciousness), meaning any ideology in sense 2 which did not consciously acknowledge its own real economic basis[23]. This would suggest that Marx’s own doctrines were regarded by him as functional ideology, representing the interests of the proletariat (and hence ultimately of all classes, since the proletariat’s interests are said to be universal), whilst other doctrines which did not recognise the material basis of ideology (including Hegelian idealism) were not only functional ideologies but ideological illusions. Marx would thus in fact recognise the limitations of his own knowledge, but nevertheless might not hesitate to act on it with the justification that he was acting correctly within the historical conditions in which he found himself. This line of thought would also do more justice to the apparent pragmatism which appears in Marx’s thought at times, in which truth is made entirely conditional upon action.


This line of interpretation can be criticised in two important ways. In the first of these, which shall pursue here, I shall apply a non-dualist analysis to Marx’s concepts of ideology in order to suggest ways in which they were limited and hence Marx’s view of his own doctrines as supported by historical analysis was also limited. A further line of criticism, however, to be followed in 4.i.iv, requires the examination of Marx’s fundamental value assumptions and the way in which these shaped his pragmatic view of truth.


Marx’s understanding of the relationship between desires and beliefs broke important new ground in Western thought, but remained controversial because the relationship between the psychological and the philosophical which it suggested was explained only in socio-economic terms. I want to suggest that it is the assumption of the priority of sociology, with its enshrinement of dualist assumptions, which prevents Marx’s account of ideology being convincing. Crucial to Marx’s account of ideology (if we assume Wood’s clarification of it to be correct) is the distinction between functional ideology and ideological illusion. This suggests that whilst all sets of beliefs are relative, the fact that some do not include recognition of their relativity creates a value-difference between sets of beliefs that do and sets of beliefs that do not, whereby those that do represent a universality of some sort that are lacked by those that do not. If the sets of beliefs are only understood sociologically as the ideologies of economic interest groups, however, then it appears on the basis of my argument in the previous subsection that there is no possible source of universality to provide grounds for this distinction.


The distinction between functional ideology and ideological illusion can, however, be given quite different grounds which make use of the model of the psyche I put forward in chapter 2. A functional ideology can be seen as one which serves the interests of the ego, and for that reason is dominated by its subjectivity. A functional ideology is thus a relative linguistic construction existing within the bounds of duality created by the ego, but not necessarily incapable of incremental objectivity for that reason. An ideological illusion, however, can be seen as a Dualist philosophy, which is conceptually limited by the dualities of the ego from recognising its dualism and consequent relativity. Whilst Marx would have taken the desires of the ego as purely instrumental to the class-interests expressed through it in the form of ideology, this analysis contains class-interests as one particular type of ego-identification. This does not mean, however, that the ego as an independent quantity identifies itself, through a sort of fantasy beyond those which are normal to the ego, beyond “itself” (taken to mean the individual) with an economic group or class. Rather, since the ego itself consists only in a process of identification, class-interest itself is a sort of ego, collectively expressed. Marx’s mistake seems to have been not to take into account the extent to which the ego’s identification, either with itself or with a universality lying beyond economic groups, may leave a residue (an apparently autonomous self) which interferes with the best historical forecasting[24].


A reconstruction of ideological illusion along non-dualist lines reveals ways in which Marx himself was subject to it. For Marx’s materialism and his appeal to economic determinism prevent him from recognising the psychological component of the ideological processes he discusses, with the result that he is unable to identify any basis of universality in the degree of objectivity of the ego (as I shall present it in Part 2). Instead he must appeal to the proletariat as a class, immiserised by their socio-economic conditions, to provide a universality of motive explicable purely at a sociological level[25]. This is perhaps amongst the most unlikely of Marx’s theorisations: that the immense complexity of motive in a whole vast class of many individuals will together spontaneously create universality through the “invisible hand” of economic processes[26]. This appeal to the universality of the proletariat is only made as a result of an ideological illusion which consists in the belief in the priority of sociology. This illusion in its turn is based on empiricist metaphysics.


iv)                Ethical foundationalism and cosmic justice


To argue for Marx’s eternalism (rather than merely his dualism) I shall begin with his ethical foundationalism, to try to show that there is a continuity of moral assumption between his view of ethics and that of the eternalist tradition. It is only in the light of this that I can turn to the issue of freewill in Marx. The reason for this is that although, as I shall argue in this and the next subsection, Marx’s ethics follow the same duality between independent subject and recompensing objective universe as the previous eternalist tradition, they do so by focussing upon the objective pole only, and the independent subject must be inferred from this. In discussing Marx there is thus no distinction between ethical foundationalism and cosmic justice, and discussion of freewill must follow on the basis of these.


Many commentators point out a “paradox”, an “inconsistency”, or a “radical break” in Marx’s view of morality, which they see either as a tension existing throughout his career or as a change of approach occurring between Marx’s early and later work[27]. As Steven Lukes writes:

On the one hand it is claimed that morality is a form of ideology, and thus social in origin, illusory in content, and serving class interests; that any given morality arises out of a particular stage in the development of the productive forces and relations and is relative to a particular mode of production and particular class interests; that there are no objective truths or eternal principles of morality….On the other hand, no one can fail to notice that Marx’s and Marxist writings abound in moral judgements, implicit and explicit. From his earliest writings, where Marx expresses his hatred of servility, through the critique of alienation and the fragmentary visions of communism in the Paris Manuscripts and The German Ideology, to the excoriating attacks on factory conditions and the effects of exploitation in Capital, it is plain that Marx was fired by outrage and indignation and the burning desire for a better world that it is hard not to see as moral.[28]


The “solutions” put forward to this paradox usually involve juggling of vocabulary. Wood argues for a distinction between morality and “nonmoral goods” such as self-actualisation, where the criteria for nonmoral goods are ultimately the descriptive ones of people’s actual needs[29]. In this he follows the confusing and unhelpful analytic tradition of defining “morality” in a way which makes it necessarily subjective, then re-introducing it in some other guise for which objective, cognitive grounds are claimed. Marxists are often also guilty of this practice. Lukes offers the alternative, and rather more honest, strategy of distinguishing two types of morality in Marxist thought, which he calls the “morality of Recht” and the “morality of emancipation[30]. The effect of this, however, is to separate Marx’s descriptive account of morality as conditioned by relative economic forces from his prescriptive assumptions. If the question we ask, then, is not “What does Marx call morality?” but the more important one of “What is the basis of value for a Marxist?” it is undoubtedly what Lukes calls “the morality of emancipation” which can be best described as Marxist ethics. Like Kamenka[31], then, I shall work on the assumption that the “paradox” is really an inconsistency: for Marxism has an ethics even if it does not admit to one. If we take as a guide what Marxists find most valuable, what they describe as “morality” would be less confusingly labelled “social convention”.


This Marxist ethic can be seen as foundationalist rather than coherentist precisely because it does draw on this distinction between descriptive and prescriptive ethics, recognising the possibility of a prescriptive ethics (Lukes’ “morality of emancipation”) in the context of which the descriptive (Lukes’ “morality of Recht”) can be placed. The foundational ethic exists, and offers its own perfect perspective separate from the coherentist ethic of social convention, which means that even if it is often social convention that is followed the overall metaphysical belief which may be invoked to justify conventional actions is nevertheless a foundationalist one. The negative nature of the metaphysical assumptions (i.e. that there is no prescriptive ethic which can justifiably apply within the conventional domain of a given group) does not prevent those assumptions from being metaphysical, nor does it prevent them having a very similar functional role to that of positive metaphysical claims in the prior eternalist tradition[32]. The possibility of the foundational justification of conventional ethics becomes clear in Marxism when it is argued that individuals are not to blame for engaging in exploitative economic relations which are necessitated by their historical context[33]. Although it doesn’t follow from this that Marxists will necessarily use their emancipatory ethic to justify their own social conventionality, the absence of any contradiction between them leaves this possibility open and provides a ready rationalisation for moral weakness. Thus in later life in London, when his earlier poverty had been alleviated by a legacy to his wife and by the generosity of his friend Engels, Marx did not see anything problematic about using his money to live a normal bourgeois life. Nor did Marx ever urge Engels to give up the textile mills in Manchester from which he derived his wealth. In Marx’s case, unlike in earlier versions of eternalism, there is no longer any pretence that this conventional behaviour is continuous with a foundational ethic of individual perfection or salvation. Rather, the foundational ethic states both the absolutely conventional nature of “morality” in relative socio-economic circumstances, and the historical inevitability of the transcendence of these relative circumstances in a future society. Even if no explicitly revolutionary activity justified directly by the foundational ethic was ever referred to (which is not the case), the conventional behaviour of Marxists would be justifiable in the terms of that foundational ethic.


This ethical discontinuity reflects that which I have been charting from the time of the Stoics. If confined entirely to the conventional sphere, Marxism would have little effect on behaviour and be deeply conservative in practice, whatever its theory[34]. Like Christianity, though, Marxism also has a radical tendency which manifests itself when its followers form a revolutionary group, united by its foundationalist ethic, in opposition to the status quo. This radical group must be tightly bound by attachment to an alternative set of beliefs to those in the surrounding society to avoid dissolution in that society. Just as deterministic and  millenarian beliefs provided such a radical focus for the early Christians and for early Protestant groups, likewise they have served that function more recently for Marxists. The ethical foundation appealed to is thus Marx’s historical materialism.


Wood usefully summarises five basic postulates about human social behaviour found in Marx’s historical materialism. These are

(1) The tendency of productive powers to increase;

(2) The tendency of social relations to adjust to the efficient employment of these powers;

(3) The tendency of social groups with shared economic interests to organise into social groups defending class interest;

(4) That human fulfilment consists in developing and exercising people’s powers of social production; and

(5) That the human race eventually tends to do what its deepest and most long-term interests demand.[35]

Together these amount to a vision, not only of cosmic justice but of how it is achieved entirely through human activity. (1) amounts to a Hegelian belief in progress, which, together with (4) (an adapted Aristotelian understanding of human essence and the way in which it is fulfilled by distinctively human activity), implies (5), the complete vision of cosmic justice. (2) and (3) here serve to explain the processes by which that process is delayed and obscured through intermediate developments of productive powers, their groupings and the ideologies of those groupings. Functionally, these beliefs thus strongly resemble those existing previously in the eternalist tradition. The precise nature of the future communist state was left deliberately vague by Marx, although he was explicit about the means by which it would come about: again this resembles previous Millenarian versions of eternalistic belief. If we compare it to the book of Revelation, for example, we find a similar vagueness about the nature of the new heaven and the new earth, but lots of detail about the events leading up to this new dispensation. In Marx’s version the overall process is attributed to material causes alone rather than to God, and the dialectical intermediation through which evil is vanquished and the relative absolutised is not that of Christ, but that of the revolutionary proletariat made objective by intolerable oppression, but the psychological functionality of the beliefs remains similar.


However, Marx’s ethical foundationalism differs from that found previously in the eternalist tradition in two important respects: firstly in that, like Hegel’s, his eternalism is a transcendental humanism. I have already suggested that this removes an important ground of humility which occasionally manifested itself in the religious eternalist tradition, and makes his eternalism also a perfectionism[36]. Since it is entirely human agency which was to bring about Marxist revolution, and the processes at work were judged entirely comprehensible in human terms, there is no cause for restraint through reflecting upon the condition of human ignorance.


Secondly, Marx’s ethical foundationalism differs from any previous type in being posited entirely at a social level in appeal to the priority of sociology. Since there is no belief in a right or wrong choice that an individual can make relative to the group, the moral role of the individual thus consists entirely in acting in subservience to the radical (or conservative)  group. If one individual fails to play the role that at first appears allotted to him, another will doubtless spring up in his place motivated to fulfil it. Practically speaking, however, Marxists have continued to experience themselves primarily as individuals and not as merely members of a collective. As Marxist philosophy has not recognised that sphere of their experience as ethically relevant, it offers neither guidance nor support to its followers in imposing any rational pattern upon personal decision-making, even where such decision-making is part of a process of revolution and conducted on behalf of the collective.


Lukes offers an excellent account of the effects of these features of Marxism in terms of the question of ends and means[37]. Examining three periods of moral debate among Marxists about the justifiability of particular instances of highly repressive methods by Lenin and by Stalin in the Soviet Union, he concludes that in all these cases, support for brutal totalitarian methods arose from the dogmatic assumption that there was an accessible source of knowledge as to the ways in which these methods would contribute to “long-range perfectionist consequences”[38]. Not only is the consequential focus of all Marxist moral consideration too long-range and large-scale to enable any effective matching of personal actions to those ends, but, Lukes points out, the long-term goal itself is not clearly conceived, and the very idea of articulating it in specific terms is dismissed as Utopian socialism rather than Marxism.

Because [Marxist consequentialism] inhibits the specification of its ultimate aim, while presuming to foresee the future, in which its eventual realisation is somehow guaranteed, it forswears both the clarification of the long-term consequences by which alternative courses of action are to be judged and, as Dewey put it, the ‘open and unprejudiced’ examination of those alternatives.[39]


Whilst useful in itself, Lukes’ analysis needs to be seen in a perspective which goes beyond his contrasting appeals to human rights and moderate socialism, in the context of the broader psycho-philosophical tendencies which it illustrates. In particular the Marxist dogmatism about the foundations of moral knowledge which he illustrates needs to be seen in relation to the whole range of previous dualist influences on Marxism: Christian millenarianism, Aristotelean essentialism, Kantian universalism, Hegelian idealism and scientistic empiricism. All these are combined in a way which, taking dualistic thinking to a rational extreme in the search for a complete explanation, rigidly focuses attention on the object of ethical experience, producing a false monism created by excluding and ignoring the subject rather than reconciling the object with it. Psychologically, the result has generally been a still more extreme version of the alienation previously created by the eternalist tradition. It is certainly ironic, but not surprising given the history of eternalism, that an ideological movement which began with the identification of alienation in capitalism led to perhaps more alienation than any other form of eternalism, created through the attempt to inculcate a collectivist mentality through Marxist education in communist countries.


v)                  Freewill and determinism


One more philosophical issue needs to be tackled in relation to Marx. I have characterised eternalism as involving a belief in freewill as one of its core features, but it is often considered that Marx’s materialism makes him a determinist (at least at the holistic, if not also at the individual level). As I have indicated, the Marxist ethical foundation is one understood only in terms of objective events, which are not understood according to their significance for the individual or as due to individual acts at all. How then can I possibly claim that Marx advocates freewill?


No amount of hermeneutic conjuring could provide me with any indication that Marx has an explicit theory of freewill, so in this sense Marx does not advocate freewill. I shall argue here purely on grounds of consistency with Marx’s other assumptions. Even on such grounds of  consistency, Marx plainly has no traditional individualistic theory of freewill whereby each individual has a capacity for decision-making free of sufficient conditions, making him morally responsible within the broader framework of recompensatory conditions. Such a theory would be inconsistent with the priority of sociology, whereby such an individual level of metaphysical belief is to be avoided. I shall argue, however, that freewill at a social level of identification is not only not precluded but required by Marx’s holistic methodology in combination with his assumption of universal value. This argument will plainly be at odds with the determinism implied by the priority of sociology, which at first appears to be a holistic determinism. The explanation I shall put forward for this conflict is that determinism is in fact incompatible with methodological holism, and Marx’s assumption that it is can be psychologically attributed to the pressures created by the eternalist tradition.


This argument can be understood more easily if it is first seen in relation to the traditional individual level of identification. In Aristotle the distinction between holism and individualism with respect to the soul takes the form of the metaphysical distinction between substance as form and substance as matter. The soul is substance as form, because form is identified with the “actuality” or intrinsic purposiveness of a substance, which is knowable rather than merely potential[40]. This Aristotelean form of essentialism thus places the essence of human nature in its teleology, and this essence is fulfilled in rational activity[41]. Philip Kain argues for a strong link between this conception of Aristotle’s and the ethics of the early Marx, which then later formed the foundation of his theory of revolution and the nature of the future communist state[42]. Marx, however, believed that the essence of  human nature could only find complete rational fulfilment in the collective setting of a universal communist society. It is only after this collective change that collective human essence would be unified, and thus individual fulfilment become possible.


The fulfilment of this essence in Aristotle forms the basis of an ethic at an individual level, a fulfilment which is only achieved through rational choice[43]. Though Aristotle does not give a metaphysical account of freewill, it is nevertheless implied by the notion of essence that, whenever a choice is made, the form or soul of the individual in some way partakes of a distinction between purposes which fulfil its essence and ones which do not. A more important point is that this teleological account of the soul excludes determinism in relation to the soul, because the soul is taken to be the efficient cause of movement of the body as well as the final cause[44]. Because the soul itself can only be understood in teleological terms, it cannot be understood in sufficient causal terms as can the body. The essentiality claimed through the teleological account of the soul is therefore incompatible with determinism.


When transposed by Marx to a sociological level, this essentialist reasoning maintains the holism that is present in Aristotle: the essence to be achieved continues to be that which is purposive and determinatively knowable in the group, which is defined in its determinative form as the economic group or class. In Aristotelean terms the Marxian socio-economic analysis reveals the substance of the group, but the substance as form rather than the substance as matter. It is thus a mistake to think of the development of the group as sufficiently caused, despite the fact that it appears to be determined, because the nature of the determination is taken to be holistic and teleological rather than one of individual causes. A necessary efficient cause of the group’s activities is in fact the end of the group, without which the causation of group-phenomena as distinguishable from the sum of individual phenomena would be incomprehensible.


For Marx the justification of a teleological explanation of human activity is the observation of empirical phenomena, just as it was for Aristotle: however, the form observed and theorised about is now a collective rather than an individual one. Wood defends the teleological aspect of Marx’s method as entirely compatible with empiricism and not requiring “entelechies or occult agencies of any sort” (presumably understanding “entelechy” here as some kind of vital informing spirit), arguing that teleological explanations are no less mysterious than causal ones[45]. But Wood is here arguing against empiricists who assume causal explanations to have some kind of contrasting certainty, missing the point that both teleological and causal explanations involve prior metaphysical assumptions. Marx is already walking on metaphysical ground if he adopts this kind of empirical explanation, even if, taken outside the context of his value-assumptions, it at first appears no less uncertain than that of other empiricists.


Nevertheless, the adoption of a teleological mode of explanation by Marx is significant because it necessarily implies a holism about social development similar to that which Aristotle held about the individual. This is because all teleological explanations imply methodological holism whilst causal explanations do not necessarily do so. A duck may be explained as having webbed feet in order to be able to swim better, in order to compete more effectively with other species, or in order to have its niche in the eco-system: but as an explanation it will not be complete without some reference to a final goal which provides an assumed significance for the intermediate ends. If, on the other hand one were to provide a causal explanation for a duck having webbed feet one would need only to provide one type of causal explanation (such as this being due to its genetic inheritance) without there being any implication of further significance in this explanation[46]. Teleological explanations thus themselves involve explanations of significance expressed in the form of ends, whilst causal explanations only gain the significance imparted to them by the ends to which they are used. Both involve an implied representational significance, since they make claims about the world, but whilst causal claims can be used in a more or less provisional theorisation, teleological claims already imply a final theorisation of value.


When Marx also adopts a Kantian universality of value and attributes it the proletariat[47] as the creators of the society where Aristotelean essence will be fulfilled, the presence of a final theorisation of value in his teleological explanation can no longer be ignored. And in what sense do the proletariat achieve this universality of value? In terms of the implications of Marx's holistic explanation, it can only be because they have achieved the telos which has been an efficient cause of their collective (though not individual) activities. The achievement of universality thus occurs in the absence of sufficient individual causes, in other words in the presence of freewill as I have previously defined it. In fulfilling the collective essence of humanity the universalising class will be determinatively exercising their innate purposiveness.


Another way of putting this argument is to ask whether Marx’s framework of cosmic justice can be sustained without an implicit doctrine of freewill. Since the administration of justice consists only in reward and not punishment, and is not dispensed either to individuals or to groups (below the level of an economic class) it might at first appear that there is no possible correlation between any particular “free” acts and recompense for those acts. But given Marx’s holistic level of explanation, we can only describe this correlation at the most general level: the whole of the acts of humanity, considered collectively, are responsible for the creation of a recompense for the whole. A requital could not be considered just, however, if it did not fulfil the essence of those who earned it: this essence is the only standard of judgement available to Marx, for he certainly does not believe in any source of justice beyond humanity itself. This standard, however, is identical to the standard according to which collective actions can be considered “free”: for the standard of freedom, the Kantian autonomy writ large, is whether the economic group acts according to universal motives, realising its essence as not being determined by its components. In introducing the final justice of the communist society, then, Marx must already assume freewill at the collective level.


Perhaps it might still be argued that the absence of two separate correlative judgements means that Marx cannot be accused of a belief in freewill or cosmic justice, but rather that he believes in something quite distinctive which is neither. Whilst this might well have been Marx’s intention, he cannot be said to have succeeded in it, given that many of the dualistic epistemological assumptions which adhere to each still remain. The certainty of cosmic justice remains, albeit in a transcendentally humanist form, as a core assumption, whilst the priority of sociology posits a new metaphysical entity, the group-self, about which knowledge effectively becomes as certain as was knowledge of the individual self for Descartes. Marx did not achieve an effective moral non-dualism through this approach because his epistemology is still dualistic. Even if Marx himself may be said to have transcended these difficulties (which I do not think he did), I have already argued that the dogmatism of his followers functionally resembles that of previous eternalists, largely because of its attachment to beliefs about the final moral goal and about the role of economic groups (to the exclusion of individuals) in the achievement of that goal, and that that dogmatism has been disastrous in its implications.


[1] For a general account of scientism as a form of nihilism see 4.a.ii

[2] See 3.b.v

[3] Marx (1977) p.93 (from Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, written 1844)

[4] ibid. p.390 (from Preface to A Critique of Political Economy, written 1857-8)

[5] Popper (1962b) ch.14

[6] Preface to A Critique of Political Economy (given in Marx (1977) p. 389)

[7] See 3.i.ii (next subsection)

[8] Popper (1962b) p.92

[9] Popper’s definition of  “historicism” differs from that of others (e.g. Leff 1969 p.32-3) who define it in terms of attention to historical context.

[10] E.g. in Marx & Engels (1974) p.47

[11] For further positive development of this argument see 6.d

[12] Wood (1981) p.111-117 argues that Marx’s philosophical determinism cannot be deduced from his economic determinism.

[13] See Wood (1981) p.125-130

[14] See 4.a-e, esp. 4.a.i & ii.

[15] Popper (1957)

[16] ibid. §23

[17] See McLellan (1995) p.182-6

[18] Marx (1974) p.82

[19] Marx (1977) p.341

[20] Marx & Engels (1974) p.48

[21] Wood (1981) p.81

[22] See 4.b.ii, 4.c & 4.d

[23] ibid. p.117-120

[24] Marx in fact recognised that not all individual motives were in harmony with their class interest and to this extent that a “residue” existed (Wood 1981 p.95). However, he did not believe that this “residue” would have any effect on inevitable macro-economic processes. I shall be discussing this issue later in the section.

[25] McLellan (1995) p.183 & 224

[26] See 3.k.i  for more discussion of Adam Smith’s use of the “invisible hand” and its eternalist basis.

[27] Lukes (1985), who is dealing with Marxism rather than just Marx, writes of a “paradox”, Kamenka (1969 p.4-6) of an “inconsistency”. Althusser (1977) is the source of the “radical break” thesis.

[28] Lukes (1985) p.3

[29] Wood (1981) p.125-130

[30] Lukes (1985) ch.3

[31] See Kamenka (1969)

[32] See 4.a.i for further supporting argument.

[33] See Wood (1981) p.152

[34] This does seem to have been the case with many Western intellectual Marxists, a tendency satirised, for example, by David Lodge in the character of the wealthy Marxist academic Fulvia Morgana in his novel Small World (Lodge 1985 p.128). For such characters, Marxist determinism provides an excellent rationalisation for conservative self-interest.

[35] Wood (1981) p.101

[36] See

[37] Lukes (1985) chs. 6 & 7

[38] ibid. p.147

[39] ibid. p.146

[40] Aristotle (1986) ch.II.1

[41] Aristotle (1976) I.i

[42] Kain (1988) ch.1

[43] See 4.b.iii

[44] Aristotle (1986 II.4 {415b}): ”So is the soul the cause of the body in the three ways we have distinguished: for it is the cause as that from which the movement itself arises, and as that for whose sake it is, and as the formal substance of ensouled bodies.”

[45] Wood (1981) p.104-8 (quotation from p.106)

[46] This implies a Humean view of causation, which I do not mean to advocate by making this comparison. The contrast is merely between the types of explanation implied by teleological and causal accounts, not the superiority of one over the other.

[47] Kain (1988 ch.2) gives an account of this process


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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