Preliminary Thoughts for a Prolegomena to a Future Analysis of Marxism and Ethics

  • Michael Harrington
Part of the The Hastings Center Series in Ethics book series (HCSE)


I am a democratic Marxist. I believe that Marxism is inherently democratic—indeed, that it is the quintessential democratic point of view for a collectivist age.1 If its genuinely democratic character and implications are properly understood, I think that Marxism can make a contribution to the resolution of our society’s current spiritual and ethical crisis. Today there is, as Jürgen Habermas has rightly observed, a de facto mass atheism in the West; and, like Habermas, we must wonder what, if any, secular system of ideas and values can serve, as religion traditionally has, to represent “the totality of a complex social system and to integrate its members in a unified, normative consciousness.”2 However, it would be absurd to think—as some early Marxists did—that Marxism will neatly and simply perform that function. When Marxism is degraded to such a pseudoreligion, it not only fails to perform that so-cial-normative role but almost always rationalizes totalitarian practices.


Human Nature Capitalist Society Marxist Theory Social Democratic Party Class Consciousness 
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  1. 1.
    Cf. Michael Harrington, The Twilight of Capitalism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976), chap. 2.Google Scholar
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    Sandkuhler and de La Vega, eds., Marxismus und Ethik, p. 365. The difference between Staatsbürger and Staatsgenossen is much more complex than the difference between citizen and workers, which is my translation. In this case, I think it adequate. Mehring refers to the fact that Kant did not believe that workers should have the right to vote, among many other things.Google Scholar
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    Marx was not an “individualist” in the sense which that term has in Western culture and philosophy. “Personalist,” as Mounier used the word, more aptly describes his views. In any case, I am impressed by the limits and poverty of language at this point. The right word does not yet exist because the right reality does not either. If the Utopia envisioned by Marx ever comes, its vocabulary, not just its economic and social life, will be richer than ours.Google Scholar
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© The Hastings Center 1984

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  • Michael Harrington

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