Aren’t Marxist critics of morality the greatest moralists? Ruthless Criticism

[Translated from GegenStandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 1-11, GegenStandpunkt Verlag, Munich]

Aren’t Marxist critics of morality
the greatest moralists?

A letter to the editors

“I have a question for you that intrigues me and has provoked me to think about your use of the concept of altruism and what it means.

In your lectures dealing with this concept, you come to the conclusion that it is wrong – I am paraphrasing – because in a certain sense it is morally motivated, so ultimately unsuitable as a way of thinking and acting in a community that lives together.

But now I ask: isn’t holding lectures also ultimately the result of an altruistic stance in the positive (good) sense. If I say, for example, ‘workers are exploited,’ why does that actually bother me if I am not exploited myself? I mean, isn’t it obvious that the people you are constantly talking about usually see their situation completely differently? They are not necessarily suffering just because I think they should suffer in their situation.

So isn’t the interest in enlightening people (through lectures or articles) about their situation, i.e. that they are exploited for the enrichment of others, etc. – also motivated by altruism, by a very abstract affection for humanity, a concern for the well-being of an abstract other?

It seems to me that GegenStandpunkt is fundamentally self-contradictory on this point.”

Editorial staff answer

You have doubts about moral values; an altruistically motivated affection for humanity seems “very abstract” to you and includes a dangerous paternalism – hence your suspicion of us. You ask whether altruism is good as a “way of thinking and acting in a community that lives together” and do not think we give a clear answer, but rather see a contradiction in our theory and practice. However, this question shows that you have already misunderstood our criticism of morality.

We are not seeking maxims for good deeds, not do we want to stipulate how people should or ought to behave so that they are better able to live together, nor do we conjure up basic rules of decency for the newly non-capitalistic person; rather, we analyze the thinking and behavior that really exists in this society. Our critique of altruism does not say that it is of no use for building a new society, but rather that it is very good – indeed, essential – for the world of capitalistic exploitation. Morality takes an affirmative stance toward the conflicts of interests in this society. It is nothing less than the alternative to criticizing it.


The categorical imperative of morality is: do not think (only) of yourself, but always (also) of others in your actions. The commandment would be meaningless if it were not based on a conflict of interests: if I pursue my own well-being, then I ignore the well-being of others, damaging or even making it impossible; if, on the other hand, I make the well-being of others my concern, my own more or less falls by the wayside. This conflict is not an incidental mismatch of interests, as evoked by civics with human-all-to-human examples such as: one person wants to listen to loud music, the neighbor wants peace and quiet. But it’s also not necessarily due to a structure of human needs that are inherently incompatible. It is ubiquitous and necessary only in a society of private property. You yourself adopt the phrase that wage laborers who own nothing but themselves are “exploited” by the owners of the means of production “for their enrichment.” They have to increase the fortunes of the rich, earn more money for them than they cost in wages in order to be able to earn enough for their necessary living expenses. Anything else in this system is “inefficient” and “unprofitable,” so it gets tossed. The more wage workers do in an hour and the lower the wage they receive for it, the better they perform their economic role. Paying them less makes them more profitable for their employers. If they do what is necessary for the profitability of their capital, this is not an unethical wrongdoing. First, using labor power in this way is the good right of the capital owner and even necessary for preserving existing capital assets. Second, in terms of ethical attitudes, there is no difference at all between the capitalist and his servants: They too consent to the employment contract only out of their own private financial interest and seek their advantage within the antagonistic relationship. The difference has nothing to do with moral maxims, but solely with the economic means that the contracting parties have at their disposal in pursuing their competitive interests.

This competition, as a principle of social interaction, would not be possible if it were not supplemented by a restraining of conflicts and limits on reciprocal damages. The state, with its monopoly of the use of force, ensures that the capitalistic private interests put up with each other and that their conflicts do not destroy the whole business: it first commits citizens to pursuing their private interests and empowers them to oppose each other and also draws the boundaries – not according to the stipulation that nobody is damaged, but exactly as it deems necessary for the preservation and productivity of the capitalist order. With the legal authorization and limitation of interests, the capitalist organization of society is complete: It determines that people’s natural materialism, their pursuit of useful goods, the satisfaction of needs and comfort can be done in no other way than through private interests which deny and thwart other private interests.

The ruled allow themselves to be defined by private financial interests. They make it their business because they are only allowed to exercise their materialism in this way. And they accept the restrictions that the law places on their interest because only under these conditions can they seek their advantage. They obey the law not only because violations are punishable with force, but because they recognize that their freedom ends where the freedom of others begins, and their self-interest must be limited so that it can be pursued. In this way, they subjectify the quintessence of law into virtues which they are committed to when competing for their advantage. As moral individuals, the most well-behaved people who submit to everything obey only themselves and, conversely, act as watchdogs and guardians over the morals in their immediate and more distant environments: Are others permitted to do what they do? Do they submit to the required decency and good manners like they do themselves? There is a lot to judge, because moral individuals have alternatives in fleshing out their social roles: one can exhaust every legal possibility of enrichment to its limit and beyond; on the other hand, a consensus-oriented citizen is careful not to damage the interests of others more than is absolutely necessary and makes concessions for what is enforceable if he can afford it. After making money and alongside it, socially aware people sometimes help those who have failed in the competitive struggle, sacrificing time and money to do so. In this society, even the most normal human sympathy is still not a matter of course: sympathy costs! The most considerately or ruthlessly practiced unity of decency and pursuit of success is of course not a rejection of, and certainly not an elimination of, the objective capitalistic conflicts of interests; rather, it is the way these conflicts are actuated by free, self-conscious individuals, and defines their social cohesion.

Morality turns this relation upside down: because they have incorporated the legal restraints into their convictions and beliefs, free citizens follow nothing in their social interactions but their moral compass when weighing the justifications for their own claims and those of others. They deny that they merely relate to the objective constraints of their capitalistic sources of income and blame their conflicts on their contradictory human nature. They act as if conflicts only exist because of the selfish behavior of their beloved fellow humans and that if people would merely behave responsibly, the conflicts of interests would not arise in the first place. For them it is always about the individual and his morals; in all societies and classes, according to their wisdom, it takes “all kinds.” Nevertheless, the moral commandment to show self-restraint and consideration in pursuing one’s interests already shows that a hostile nature is presumed and is not supposed to be eliminated either. The moral ideal promises only that interests, in all their conflicts with each other, could co-exist if people would show some self-restraint.

Of course, demonstrating one’s own modesty and the obligations of others to the same is not a renunciation of one’s interest, but the morally required way of pursuing it and of settling differences. One demands from the other the decency, consideration, and solidarity proper to civilized people – only because the other’s interest should take a back seat, so that one’s own can get a better chance. Vice versa, someone insists that they have always thought of others in their actions and showed them the requisite consideration, in order to claim free rein for their own interests in this way: nobody can raise a valid objections against them. On the one hand, moral people claim that they themselves accept the reins imposed by the law on the basis of understanding and put them ahead of their interests. On the other hand, they use their willingness to refrain from the ruthless assertion of their own interests as a means to assert these interests. They sort through the contradiction in a biased way: They give themselves credit for being considerate out of conviction, and they see through the same thing in others as hypocrisy. So awareness of righteousness is not an obstacle to mutual damage, but the good conscience with which it is pursued: the members of this society are permitted to do what they do, and they can do no wrong to anyone when they seek their own advantage – so long as they justify their actions to themselves and others in the light of moral principles, i.e. if they can “take responsibility” for them. And everybody can do that. All it requires is the cheap assurance that one has not forgotten to validate one’s own purposes with higher principles. The entrepreneur who lays off workers in order to reduce his labor costs and increase his profit margin, for example, does not forget to justify it all with his responsibility for the people who depend on him: if he does not control costs and whip the competitiveness of his business into shape, even more jobs would be at stake. He “must” – unfortunately – cut some people’s earnings in order to save other people’s sources of income. Everybody answers for what they do the same way as this entrepreneur. Doctors, politicians and ordinary workers cultivate an unblemished consciousness of what they do for others and the general public, and that they are therefore entitled to what they are able to get out of the competition.

We have not even mentioned egoism and altruism yet because these “isms” are not elements of a lived morality, but ideological constructs that moral judgment and condemnation create for itself: it evaluates people and their actions by relegating them to one of two opposing basic orientations: does he think only of himself or does he care about the well-being of others? The question tears apart something that in moral reality always occurs in combination, because morality is not the opposite of interest and not beyond it, but a subordination to the commandments of the state accepted on its behalf. The question of deciding whether egoism or altruism is present somewhere fails to recognize both sides of the contradictory capitalistic private materialism.

In isolation, the radicalized alternatives for moral posturing are only nonsensical abstractions: in the accusation of egoism, bourgeois people accuse others of having only their own interest in mind and not also restraining their interest, which would make it socially acceptable. However, an unrestrained interest, regardless of its content, is asocial selfishness. Not what one wants (and asserts against others), but that one wants something for one’s self and not at the same time its negation as well, is supposed to be a sin: materialism in and of itself is condemned as evil. At the same time, the critics of egoism know that of course they want to realize their own interests – and not to restrict them. But they allow themselves the belief that if they really want to be good, they would have to do without it.

Altruism, the positive counter-ideal, declares selflessness, renunciation, and sacrifice to be attributes of the perfect human being. Even in an altruistic world, well-being would be important, but oddly enough never one’s own, always that of others. Just as surely as moral idealists know that they can’t do without egoism, they know they can’t practice altruism. The exceptional people who seem to take it seriously – jungle doctors and nuns: “I want to serve, not make money!” – are smiled at because of their unworldliness or immediately suspected of indulging in a quite unusual form of selfishness. Whenever altruism appears as an actual reason for doing something, it arouses suspicion.

In moral ideals, bourgeois people, uncritical of the systematic conflicting interests of their mode of production, put together a criticism of human beings and develop an image of the “good co-existence” which they themselves know is not of this world and must remain an ideal. They allow themselves an awareness that they live wrongly, but can’t live otherwise, for the simple reason that they themselves are so wrong.


You yourself are trapped in moral thinking and judgments when you try to deduce the meaning and rightness of actions by attributing them to selfish or altruistic motives. Instead of examining the substance of our lectures and texts, you engage in motive research and think you know where you stand if you can decide whether we are acting with good will.

You see our efforts to criticize capitalism, in which there is no personal monetary gain, as an act of unselfish motives. However, as soon as you have stablished, according to your coordinates, that we are being altruistic, which for some mysterious reason we do not admit to, you start questioning the matter: Does real altruism exist at all? “What do I care about the exploitation of the workers if I am not one myself?” Why do people who aren’t even affected get involved in the problems of other people? Do they perhaps play the role of Enlighteners towards the workers, convincing them of a discontent and suffering that they don’t actually have? The Marxist who has been ennobled as an altruist quickly mutates into a self-appointed guardian, and his diagnosis leads from his own stringent standards to a possibly invalid conclusion about what others have to demand from life. Yes, if wage laborers were to criticize exploitation, they would have a credible selfish motive; but they do not see their situation that way. However, those who do see it this way are not in this situation, have no reason of their own, and therefore in fact no reason to criticize: with your question about who would have the motive, a reason and right to denounce exploitation, you do nothing less than deny its objectivity.

You also misjudge our relationship to the exploited. There is no altruistic proxy, no compassion and no sympathy for the less fortunate. We criticize these people. Above all, we do not convince them to be discontent, which they otherwise are not, but rather criticize the moral interpretations they give to their discontent: their sigh for justice, which the powerful figures in the state and the economy should do for them, their anger at the mismanagers and career politicians who do not master their supposedly beneficial jobs, their pride in their proletarian integrity and the certainty that they don’t do anything wrong when they let everything be done to them.

Your letter is less interested in our criticism of capitalism, its participants and its customs than in the motives that drive us to it. This disconnection is wrong, because the criticism contains everything it needs to “motivate” the rejection of this economic system. Of course, it is also inadequately summarized with the meager quintessence: “exploitation of the workers.” It is not the case that one part of the population is exploited for the profit of the owners of capital, while the lives of the other part remain unaffected and turn out just fine. The entire life-process of the society is subjected to the economic purpose of making money into more money; and it is not only the simple workers who are dependent on wages. Anyone who advances in the hierarchy of occupations as a salaried employee or self-employed earns the less grueling work and the higher income with nothing but functions for the exploitation of the common working people. These consist in, among other things, preparing them for their role (teachers), keeping them fit for it (doctors), making them productive in the workplace (engineers), calculating the costs they represent for the companies and pressuring them with money and commands to perform (management experts), administering them in social institutions (civil servants) and supervising them in general (the legal system). Nobody escapes the relations of exploitation – be it as a collaborating perpetrator or as a victim or both at the same time. The lives of the higher earners are also determined by the struggle for money; and the criticism of this fetish of the private power of disposal over the potentials of the society is neither wrong nor superfluous just because some people have enough of it.

The impacts of capitalist relations are therefore abundantly available. Nothing depends on them, but what people make of them. And only one demand is made: the criticism must be correct.

In this respect, everything depends on whether someone who thinks something stinks sees the evil as theoretically settled when he disapproves of it according to the standard of what is morally advisable and thus thinks that what shouldn’t be would not have to be if people would only try harder and curb their egoism. Appeals for humanity and demands for what should be and shouldn’t be are a dime a dozen; they have accompanied capitalist society since its beginnings and accomplish only one thing: with them, the critic puts himself in the right. He is full of good intentions; the others spoil their coexistence.

Marxist criticism does not lament that the world is not as it should be, but says why it is the way it is. It traces the same evils that everyone laments back to their causes and explains why they are necessary based on how this society is organized. That at least is useful enough so that those who object to these evils know what to oppose and what it will take to stop them.

In doing so, we have come across one thing: some people may want to get rid of capitalism, but only the wage laborers can do what is necessary: with their work, they continually sustain and reproduce the economic and political power that forces them to serve. Not only do they have good reasons, but also the means to overthrow the conditions that we don’t like. There you have our reason why we “constantly” talk to the workers about their economic situation.