By now, you’ve likely heard the news – Current Affairs, the most delightful magazine on the Left, has fallen to serious internal conflict. According to Lyta Gold, the fall was occasioned by a conflict, as old as the “history of all hitherto existing societies,” between the founder of this delightful magazine, Nathan J. Robinson, and his employees. They wanted staff to have more control over the magazine, and Nathan did not want that. Nathan then fired several of the employees, leading to public outcry, and Nathan has since expressed regret for his actions.
Immediately, some people started taking away all the wrong lessons: that somehow, what happened was a result of something unique to Nathan – because he was strange, or flamboyant, or a popular journalist, that this explained his actions. To some, the fault was in his individual personality. This is fundamentally a liberal understanding of human motivation. As a Marxist, I saw things differently, and it struck me as an opportunity to explore a fundamental and important question: What does Marxism have to say about being a good person? And how can it be that even someone with all the right ideas could still act wrongly?
Because what Nathan did is the same thing that has happened a thousand times before in ventures of all types, for-profit and non-profit alike. Socialists are not exempt. I have no doubt that Nathan J. Robinson is about as good, conscientious and kind a person as anyone else. The answer must not lie in his heart, but in his circumstances. And about the circumstances of human development, Marx has a lot to say, though frequently not in the terms of moral language that we are used to. I want to bridge that gap, and figure out what Marxism has to say about ethics, and what ethics can teach us about Marxism.
What Marx Got Wrong About Marxism and Ethics
Nathan J Robinson caught a lot of criticism last year for taking the position that Marxism lacks a moral argument or framework for ethics, and this is part of the reason why Nathan rejects Marxism despite his socialist commitments. I can hardly fault Nathan for taking this position – Marx makes a rejection of a transhistorical concept of “justice” a recurring theme in his work. Marx, writing largely against a background of “non-materialist” socialists who rooted their arguments almost entirely in moral or Christian language. Even my good comrade Ramsin Canon stakes out this position in his excellent short explanation on What It Means To Be a Marxist: ”Marxism isn’t a moral philosophy.”
This widely-shared view of Marxism has always struck me as wrong. For starters, it sure seems like Marx is making moral claims about justice when he rails against the gross injustices and inhumanity of capitalism. He describes, for instance, the wrongness of worker exploitation as “robbery” or “theft.” Marx consistently rallies the moral sentiments of his readers to stir people into collective action. And many people find their way to Marxism due to an urgent desire for social justice. From the inside, when we say things like “it is wrong to evict someone because they’re poor,” it sure feels like we’re saying something about justice and morality. I’m not the first person to make this observation; as Norman Geras put it in his article “The Controversy About Marx and Justice, “Marx did think capitalism was unjust but he did not think he thought so.” To understand how Marx can be wrong about Marxism, we have to be able to separate out what we really mean by “Marxism.” We have to distinguish between “Marxism” as a methodology for sociological, historical and political analysis on the one hand, and “Marxism” as the set of specific conclusions Marx came to by ostensibly applying that methodology to the circumstances of his time.
Defining “Marxism” as a methodology is an essay in itself, but I’ve always liked Robin D.G. Kelley’s definition: “Marxism was not a set of laws. It wasn’t a set of principles. It was a set of ideas rooted in three things. One, the idea of historical materialism— that is, that people make their own history, but under particular material conditions that constrain and limit possibility. But also, within that, the working classes, the oppressed classes—by working classes I meant all forms of labor, from the enslaved to the serfs to the proletariat—they are making history in motion, they are the motive force. Class struggle is the motive force. . . And the third thing was simply thinking dialectically. What does it mean to think dialectically, for contradictions not to be resolved, but possible nuggets for revelation? For revelation to understand where things are moving, not to predict the future, but to understand how things unfolded? And how things unfolded—thinking of these three things: class struggle, historical materialism, and dialectical processes —all reveal what is hidden from public view.”
Ramsin Canon, similarly, defines the Marxist method as “an understanding of the laws governing how society develops and how we can understand the process of history. His theories of alienation and class struggle inform us as to the causes of human misery and the obstacles to human flourishing.”
Using this methodology does not mean we will always come to the same answers as Marx, particularly on questions of what human flourishing consists of. We must make this separation between the two “Marxisms,” because the latter is also inflected by a number of other unnamed methodologies and ideologies that were pervasive in the conditions under which he was writing: European scientism, enlightenment rationalism, and a preference for viewing natural and social processes as essentially mechanical and predictable – all pieces of early-to-mid 19th Century European thought that Marx had not adequately dealt with critically.
We must also make these criticisms of Marx because we must recognize that Marxism is not the only organized body of thought towards liberation, in that other genealogies in the radical tradition have come to different conclusions. This is a central argument of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism. For instance much of what I will be discussing here is first theorized within feminism or within the Black radical tradition in which the politics of personal transformation is central to the theory and practice of struggles for liberation.
But recognizing these limitations does not imply a rejection of Marxism, or a conclusion that it lacks a moral framework, because in fact, the insights of Marxism are an essential component of a revolutionary moral theory. I argue that Marxism is essential for a correct moral and ethical understanding of the world, and that a moral and ethical framework is likewise essential for understanding Marxism.
Revolutionary Aristotelianism: Habit as a Marxist Concept
The concept that’s going to be doing the most heavy lifting here is “habit.” Habit is a bedrock concept for the moral system called “virtue ethics,” which finds its origins in Aristotle. And I think “habit” needs to be a fundamental concept as well in our understanding of political economy.
Let’s talk about “habit” first as an ethical concept, and then as a political one. “Virtue Ethics” is one of three main ways of thinking about ethics. Rather than a “consequentialist” framework which thinks about utilitarian outcomes, or a “deontological” framework which thinks about rules and duties (e.g. “thou shalt not”), a “virtue ethics” framework thinks about ethics as a matter of “character,” that is, the kinds of people we come to be by what we practice doing. As Will Durant put it, “We are what we repeatedly do.”
This moral framework, ancient though it is, is backed up by Marxism, psychology, and lived experience. When we go about our daily lives, we usually act not based on rational deliberation, but by habit. We get good at what we practice, and find it difficult to act in ways we have not acted before. This stands in stark contrast to the ethical theory of existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre, who thought that we were fundamentally free beings, able to choose at any moment from a nearly infinite set of choices about what we will do, who we will be, and how we will act.
Instead of seeing our choices as immediately and freely willed, virtue ethics sees our choices as shaped by habit. And this is why “habit” is such a fundamental concept – we are neither fully free-willed creatures, nor are we totally determined by circumstance. Rather, we can shape our habits over time through deliberate action, but only through a process of practice. In Addiction and Virtue, Kent Dunnington applies this category of “habit” to understand addiction – we can’t freely choose to, say, stop smoking in any given moment, but we can shape our thoughts and actions into a habit over time that doesn’t include smoking. In the ethical arena, we might not be able to simply will ourselves to be brave or compassionate in a given situation, but we might be able to do it with practice. As someone who has experience addiction to alcohol, this framework rings true. It is possible to recover and change as a person, much as Marx says it is possible to change as a society. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Dunnington goes on to argue that our habits, even bad ones like addiction, are often attempts to gain access to real and important moral goods. His argument is counterintuitive because we often see addiction as being about the pursuit of pleasure or sensory goods, not moral ones. The lived experience of addicts often tells us otherwise. We continue to consume our drug of choice even when it no longer gives us pleasure or even when it make us feel bad or sick because we find it necessary to achieve some other social or moral goal such as being able to cope with work or being able to be sociable or to deal with anxiety. What drinkers often find so hard to let go of is not the pleasure or sensation of drinking (though there is a chemical component), but the fact that drinking allows one to access things like relaxation, community, or connection.
A virtue ethics framework is about changing our mind and practices to develop habits which actually attain the moral goods that we’re often trying to seek. And this is where “habit” also comes into play as a Marxist concept. Marx locates in Capitalism a degradation of the ways of life, and structures of community which previously allowed people to live lives with meaning and fulfillment.. Marx discusses “alienation” as a result of capitalism that makes attainment of moral goods difficult.
Applying this concept of “habit” to Marx yields the underlying mechanism that explains how capitalism ends up shaping our actions in the ways that it does. Capitalists do the harm they do not just because they are just “bad people.” They do choose to exploit workers, but it is not that a “better person” in the same situation would do otherwise. Much like an addict, bosses feel forced by circumstance to make morally repugnant choices. Over time these choices become habitual responses and form an ideology around the character and choices that result. The compulsions of the market direct us all with the force of any other addiction, often whether we approve of our own actions within that system or not. At the extremes, the interior life of a capitalist resembles an addict or a hoarder, driven beyond logic or reason towards compulsive accumulation.
Contrary to the existentialist framework, Capitalists are best thought of as people who literally can not just choose to act differently than they do (or at least not consistently). Rather, the habits and character that has been formed through their economic activity shapes them morally and ideologically.
Part of the tragedy is that, from their perspective, they are not bad people even as they exploit workers for profit. In fact, much like other addicts, they see their actions as necessary to attain real moral goods, such as a good life for those around them, or the fulfillment of societal duties and expectations. We can see this in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, in which he describes his capitalist habits of thriftiness, hard work, and temperance as being motivated by both a moral and religious commitment to goodness, even as these habits push Franklin and capitalists like him systemically towards a habit of worker exploitation.
It is precisely because liberal capitalists adhere, in principle, to the admirable liberal ethical values that they are unable to see their own behavior for what it is. Indeed, in the case of Nathan J Robinson, the self-deception inherent in his class position was not at odds with his socialist commitments, but rather, a product of it. It is precisely because he had such a powerful sense of integrity and socialist values that he also had an incentive to self-deceive about his position and actions. A person who had no such commitments or values would have no reason to self-deceive to protect his image as a moral person. This is one way in which, I will argue, having the right ideas is never enough.
This view of “habit” is the often missing link in explaining many tenets of Marxism, particularly why members of the different economic classes act in the way that they do. Habit is the mechanism by which economic interest shapes action so thoroughly. Habit speaks in the language of tendency, and what someone is likely to do or accustomed to doing. This allows us to link economic interest to behavior in a way that makes sense. It is not a vulgar, simple, mechanical guarantee that a certain economic actor will necessarily act in their economic interest in each and every situation. These predictions are often hyperbolic and weak, but habit allows for us to recognize that such predictions cannot be made with certainty, AND that there is nonetheless a tendency towards action based on position. Habit allows us to say that an actor is likely to do a given thing due to a materialist analysis of how their position has shaped their activity, and how their activity shapes their character and behavior. Habit gives us language to avoid both “economism” and “voluntarism.”
For instance, “habit” allows us to better understand a frustrating and complicated area of class analysis – the position of the “professional-managerial class.” If we operate with a mechanical view of class and behavior, the idea that someone being in a “managerial” position means alignment of interest with capitalists, we get absurd takes like “public school teachers are basically bosses,” or that people who use a certain type of language (e.g. “woke/ academic speak”) share political interests. On the other hand, if we take a simplified position that anyone working for a wage is a “worker,” we are left with the frustrating problem of explaining significant differences in political behavior between different workers. But if we use the lens of habit, we can explain that someone in a “professional class” position may adopt some behaviors that may be very similar to someone who is a manager or a capitalist, but that these do not necessarily result in other political behaviors or a shared set of political interests. Likewise, a person may have a set of behaviors and habits that are quite similar to working class people (perhaps they acquired them while being working class themselves), but may or may not have a shared political interest due to their current economic circumstances. This may explain for example, how an editor of a socialist magazine, while not exploiting anyone’s surplus labor for profit (and being paid the same as any other staff member), might still adopt behaviors similar to bosses, due to the similarity of the position and the habits created by the management of a small business.
If we start to think about habit and behavior, we are thrown into the messiness of desire as a driving political concept. Ungovernable, unruly desire not subject to “rationality” is as often a driver of human behavior in the economic sphere as “rational interest” (and everywhere else). This concept – the role of desire in ostensibly political behavior – is getting its most serious attention from trans scholars like Andrea Long Chu in her essay “On Liking Women,” in which she argues that we should understand “transness as a matter not of who one is but of what one wants. The primary function of gender identity as a political concept – and increasingly a legal one- is to bracket, if not totally deny, the role of desire in the thing we call gender.” Marxists would do well to not essentialize class position as implying a set of objective, rational interests, and start thinking about “class interest” as something we must construct out of (among other things) desire, which is so often in the driver-seat, politically speaking. Much has been lost since the left (for some justifiable reasons) stopped talking about Freud when we talk about Marx. We never completed the project of replacing Freud with a more complete picture of desire – we just stopped talking about the role of the irrational and libidinal in politics at all (or at least, abandoned it to Zizek and academia).
Following this line of thinking, with habit at the center of our analysis, leads us to other understandings about Socialism. We can think of the aim of socialism as the creation of a world in which the economic and social systems properly allow for the formation of new habits that create moral and physical flourishing for all. Additionally, this moral framework would imply that socialism is not just about creating material conditions in which humans can flourish but also the creation of a new set of values and a shared concept of what it means to have a flourishing life. This aspect of socialism, as a project of also shaping our interior lives is a recurrent theme in Marxist thought that can be found in Che Guevara’s essay Socialism and Man in Cuba. It is also found in the socialist feminist theoretical tradition around Social Reproduction Theory.
Our project must consist of dreaming up new ways for us to relate to each other and for us to essentially create a world that makes better people than we have had the chance to be- the kind of people that can live in genuinely collaborative, convivial and non-dominating ways. This project, of both system and interior transformation has been realized or at least attempted in the context of socialist governments such as Red Vienna and in the efforts of socialist teachers and educators (eg Paulo Freire) to transform our school systems away from developing people that are obedient and self-interested and towards people who can participate in collective liberation.
Habit is the concept which serves as a connector between our internal lives (ethics, choices and values) and our external world (economics, politics and history). A Marxist account of “habit” allows us to think of all of these as parts of a single system.
The Implications and Uses of a Marxist Moral Framework
This conceptual ethical framework gives us a wealth of tools for thinking through a variety of problems in organizing. First and foremost, a Marxist concept of habit allows us to think of the process of mass organizing as not just being about strategic moves, or changing minds, but rather as the process of making class struggle a habit for the working class. By engaging in strategic campaigns, we collectively develop practices which shape us as human beings at the level of our perceptions, choices and interpersonal dynamics. That is to say, organizing is about the mass cultivation of revolutionary habits.
This language of habit also gives us a ready explanation for why it would be impossible to suddenly have a general strike (as the necessary collective habits and character that would allow millions of people to spontaneously take action don’t yet exist). But the language of habit also allows us to say that such a capacity could be developed, and provides insight into how to get there.
This might seem as just a restatement of what is common sense within DSA – that transformative reforms are about the transformation of the capacities of the working class to act as a class. But situating this within the virtue ethics framework illuminates an area of emphasis and activity that is often left out of orthodox Marxism or a strictly power-based analysis. If the goal is the cultivation of habit, then internal work and the “politics of personal transformation” as practiced within the feminist political tradition enters back into the equation as an important part of our political activity. As I have previously argued, changing and bettering the ways in which we treat each other must be an intentional focus of our organizing.
This focus on habit shifts us from thinking about having the just right ideas to having the right rituals, practices, environment, reminders, reinforcement and connection to others that will allow for change. It means that a campaign is not just “strategic” in its external goals, but strategic in the sense of how it shapes us as we do it. This insight is already found in the common checklist for evaluating campaigns “Does it create a tangible win for the working class? Does it organize the unorganized? Does it develop new leaders?” This frame may also explain why projects like mutual aid, even in its least strategic forms, still may be worthwhile in terms of developing the habits of acting collectively, directly, and in motion with others in our community. Likewise, this ethical framework can give us some insight into why certain forms of action can also create bad habits – why, for instance, being in a constant habit of “critique” can lead a person or group to make a habit of critique over action, becoming “haters” on the sidelines of movements rather than active participants. These habits have consequences for movements, as anyone who has felt the life sucked out of a movement or organization by unrelenting, cynical critique and interpersonal conflict can attest to.
Going back to the idea of desire, and its role in our politics, if “class interest” is about desire, habit-formation is too. We must organize with desire in mind, and create something that is as exhilarating as the promise of capitalism if we are to win people over – not just having better arguments. This is what adrienne maree brown means when she refers to organizing as an “imagination battle.” “Imagination has people thinking they can go from being poor to a millionaire as part of a shared American dream. Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of ability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone’ else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.”
Going beyond habit as just a psychological concept but also as a moral concept also gives us language to conceive of the long-term of our project – to do this imaginative work. In an Aristotelian virtue ethics system, there is a concept of telos, that is, the end point to which a thing, growing and flourishing, will arrive at. It is the telos of an acorn to become an oak tree. It may be argued that the telos of humanity is Communism, and the “virtues” are the traits and habits that lead to this end-point. In this sense, we can think of our goal as creating a state and society geared towards the common achievement of the virtues that will allow everyone to achieve their individual and collective potential. This idea that we have an “end point” as a species is a bold one, but one that Marx adopted in describing a human movement to achieve our “species being.” The idea that our political system should support the shared achievement of moral goods is at the core of Aristotle’s account of ethics and politics. “The political life of Aristotle’s Greek city-state was tightly ordered around a shared conception of what such a political community must achieve in order to make accessible to its citizens the goods constitutive of a worthwhile way of life.”
The aim of socialism is to create a world in which the system itself properly allows for the formation of habits that create moral and physical flourishing for all. But additionally, this moral framework could imply that socialism is not just about creating the material conditions in which humans can flourish but also the creation of a new set of values and shared concept of what it means to have a flourishing life
If socialism or Communism is our telos, and we understand the process of change as involving collective habit and character formation, then being a revolutionary socialist is at least the start of a complete moral system, giving us a roadmap of our place in the world, our relationship to others, and how we might develop as individual persons towards this goal.
Making Peace with Our Limitations
When I saw what happened at Current Affairs, I thought “there but for the grace of God go I.” I mean that in the sense that only addicts can really understand – not in a sense of superiority, but with the terrible recognition that what horrible things I see in this other person are things I too am capable of doing. I am no better a person than Nathan, and as the executive director of a new organization, am about to be in an extremely similar structural situation. And as an alcoholic, I understand too well that one can do things by habit even while one hates doing them. So the many words above are not just an academic matter for me, but a real live question.
Socialists, and in particular, utopian socialists, are dangerously vulnerable to self-deception. Self-deception is not at odds with having deeply-held values, it is a product of having deeply-held values. It is only a person for whom ethics are important who would feel the need to self-deceive as to the degree to which they were falling short of those ethics.
I think this can look like a socialist employer denying the degree to which their position was essentially similar to a traditional employer, or an organization overstating the efficacy of its projects. I think this is also why sometimes anti-racist white people are the most hostile to the idea that their behavior belies racist attitudes, etc. It is the degree to which we care that we become vulnerable to self-deception.
And this is the last, important lesson Marxism has for ethics: the essential hopefulness of Marxism lies in the fact that it seeks to build a new world out of the muck and dirt of the world we have now. The dialectical view of the world of being made up of contradictory and opposite forces in struggle is an apt metaphor of the condition of the human soul. We are both motivated by our values, but also, powerfully, by the imprint of the historical processes that produced us and which may be very much in conflict with those values.
The question of “how can we become the kind of people who can win a revolution” is only possible to ask if one accepts the premise that we are not yet that kind of people. If we want to get anywhere, we must pay great attention to our habits, and the structure and practices that shape our repeated behavior. We must make a “fearless moral inventory” of where we are, versus where we want to be. To modify a common organizing saying “How can I transform today, to do tomorrow what I cannot do today?” That’s the real work, but I believe and hope we are up to the task.