Marxism and Ethics Today

  • Elizabeth Rapaport
Part of the The Hastings Center Series in Ethics book series (HCSE)


Michael Harrington has rescued Marxism from some of the most entrenched distortions perpetrated by Marx’s critics and by Marxists from whom those critics learned the Marxism they reject. Harrington and I are in agreement on a number of broad but crucial questions about the nature of Marxism and of a Marxist approach to ethics today. My Marx too is a moralist, a democratic humanist, and a subtle social analyst rather than a doctrinaire economic determinist. I will follow Harrington’s lead in identifying myself and my Marxism politically in order to clarify our different interpretations of Marx.


Ethical Theory Capitalist Society Capitalist Development Historical Materialism Class Consciousness 
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  1. 1.
    In 1911, Roberto Michels published a path-breaking, extremely influential study of the oligarchic tendencies inherent in socialist as well as any other organization. The quotation is from this work, Political Parties, ed. Seymour Martin Lipset (New York: Free Press, 1966).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Harrington, p. 86. Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of Christian theology in the late 1830s and early 1840s is amongst the most important influences on Marx’s youthful socialist views. In 1843 Marx proclaimed himself a Feuer-bachian and a socialist. Feuerbach argued that human beings should make a Christian community on earth rather than seeking a heavenly antidote to life’s disappointments. He identified this goal with socialism. He did not develop any political program for the achievement of socialism or interest himself in how this earthly Christian community was to be achieved in practice. A collection of Feuerbach’s most important writings is available in Z. Hanfi’s edition, The Fiery Brook (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1972).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See the jointly authored Communist Manifesto and Engels’s essay “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” a widely available excerpt from his book Anti-Diihring.Google Scholar
  4. 1.
    See Harrington, p. 89, this volume.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Alasdair Maclntyre, “How Virtues Become Vices,” in Evaluation and Explanation in the Biomedical Sciences, ed. H. T. Engelhardt and Stuart Spicker (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1974)Google Scholar
  6. 5a.
    Elizabeth Rapaport and Pault Segal, “Abortion and Ethical Theory,” in Sex: from the Philosophical Point of View, ed. R. Baker et al. (Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield Adams, 1977).Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    An exception is J. J. C. Smart. See “Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism,” Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1956). He does not elaborate an alternative position but he does repudiate fidelity to common conviction as a criterion of theoretical adequacy.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Notably, R. M. Hare. See Freedom and Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963) on the problem of fanaticism.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    See my essay “Ethics and Social Policy,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 11, no. 2 (June 1981): 285. For a brief and accurate account of historical materialism see Anthony Giddens, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971).Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    See Harrington’s “The New Karl Marx,” in The Twilight of Capitalism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976), pt. I.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Socialism (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1970), p. 351.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Harrington, p. 89, this volume.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    See Marx’s writings of this period, “On the Jewish Question” and “Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” available in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), as well as in other accessible collections.Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    See in particular Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, relevant selections from which are to be found in the Hanfi edition cited above.Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    See Peter Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism (New York: Collier, 1952).Google Scholar
  16. 15.
    It was from Kautsky that Lenin adopted the famous doctrine of What Is to Be Done; that is, the socialist intelligentsia must bring revolutionary consciousness “into” the proletariat from “outside.”Google Scholar
  17. 16.
    See George Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971).Google Scholar
  18. 17.
    For examples, see On the Jewish Question written in 1843 and Critique of the Gotha Programme written in 1875. Both are in the McLellan collection cited above.Google Scholar
  19. 18.
    For the development of the progression of the distinct meritocratic positions and what might force a meritocrat to move from a weaker to a stronger version, see Thomas Nagel, “Equal Treatment and Compensatory Discrimination,” Philosophy and Public Affairs no. 2 (1973).Google Scholar
  20. 19.
    Harrington quotes Marx’s phrase in connection with his discussion of British imperialism, p. 83.Google Scholar
  21. 20.
    See Marx’s The Gotha Programme, cited above.Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    An expanded version of the first part of this essay may be found in “Ethics and Social Policy,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XI (2), June, 1981, 285–308.Google Scholar

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© The Hastings Center 1984

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  • Elizabeth Rapaport

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