Marx’s critique is powerfully moral, not in the sense of establishing rules of right and wrong conduct but in the older sense of describing what it is for humans to be able to flourish, to be able to realize themselves fully. It was also cynical about the very idea of morality, or rather of what it had come to represent. For Marx, the concept of alienation, and of human flourishing, could not be wrenched away from the project of social transformation, of the overthrowing of capitalism itself.
…’The claim of Marxism to be a morally distinctive standpoint’, argues Alasdair MacIntyre, for many years a Communist Party member, ‘is undermined by Marxism’s own moral history’. Whenever ‘Marxists have had to take explicit moral stances’, they have ‘always fallen back into relatively straightforward versions of Kantianism or utilitarianism’. There is in Marx, MacIntyre suggests, an absence of thought about the moral underpinnings of social transformation. Marx excoriated the moral consequences of capitalism. He wrote of how human nature might flourish under communism. But he wrote little of the norms by which revolutionary social movements should be judged. One result was the wrenching apart of politics and morality in those movements and societies influenced by Marx. Social change came to be seen purely in political terms and its moral content defined solely in terms of the success of its political ends. The moral case for any action was that it furthered the cause. As a result, MacIntyre suggests, there is a moral hollowness to Marxism that could only be filled by looking elsewhere for moral answers, in particular to utilitarian ideas that the revolutionary means were justified by the revolutionary ends.
…By 2008, however, the possibility of change (at least in the way that Marx would have understood it) had become negligibly small. The depth of the economic crisis led to talk of a ‘crisis of capitalism’. And yet there was no political challenge to capitalism. Workers’ organizations had been destroyed, the left had imploded, as had the idea that there could be an alternative to the market system. The resurrection of Marx challenged none of this. Those who turn to Marx these days look upon him not as a prophet of capitalism’s demise but as a poet of its moral corruption. But to what extent does a moral critique that is explicitly hitched to a social critique remain meaningful when the possibilities of acting upon that social critique seem so to have faded? That, perhaps, is the most difficult question to be asked of Marx’s thought.