Over the past hundred years, I won’t deny that many ruthless and otherwise unjustifiable acts have been carried out in the name of socialism. Sometimes, these actions were directly harmful (such as the use of state terror), whereas in other examples they were not (such as the introduction of strict economic policies that later caused suffering), yet many perished all the same. This is why communists today, require adequate justification for what’s been going on in these countries, and it would seem to me that this comes most naturally in the argument that the end may justify the means, or if you’re Trotsky, ‘the end may justify the means so long as there is something that justifies the end’ (I know it sounds slightly pretentious).
This is a core idea of utilitarianism, an ethical theory predating Marxism, which argues in a very general sense that an action is defined in terms of its consequences. Thus even concepts like genocide, which we’d normally consider horrific, are permissible if they bring about greater happiness than would have otherwise been the case, the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people lying at the heart of the philosophy. Just from this, one can see key similarities between Marxist and utilitarian thought; they both exist with an eye to the majority; they both strive for the wellbeing of the masses, and in both schools of thought it is upheld that violence, be it in the case of class conflict (Marxism) or the ‘Trolley Problem’ (utilitarianism) may be used to achieve the greater good. So I’m writing to discuss the similarities between these two philosophies, whether or not Marxism can operate in a utilitarian way – or vice versa – and finally, whether or not utilitarianism successfully justifies the many otherwise-atrocious actions committed in communism’s name.
First of all, it’s worth pointing out that Marx’s ideas entail an element of sacrifice. Friedrich Engels once stated that ‘The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of reactionary peoples.’, and the fact that he followed it up with ‘this too, will be a step forward’ confirms the utilitarian character of such thinking, which treated these horrors as a necessary part of the communist struggle. On top of this, it has to be remembered that Marx’s interpretation of what capitalism would inevitably lead to, whilst a scientific interpretation, also bore the label of justice, equality, and all that was right. Thus, science and morality merged with the Marxian prediction that from capitalism there would arise communism, the latter being a better moral alternative as well as an inevitable on. This was simply because it was upheld the idea of a better world, the best, in fact, of all hitherto economic systems (except possibly Primitive Communism). True, that’s an incredibly vague interpretation, but I think it’s obvious that the specific ideas of classlessness or an end of exploitation are credited as they result in a happier society. This is why the Greatest Happiness Principle, as it’s referred to, is very definitely present in scientific Marxism and underpins the core Marxist ideas and theories.
If we can thus accept that these ideas are utilitarian ones, I think it’s also true that they are justified in a utilitarian way. The kind of violence Marx and Engels spoke of wasn’t without reason; why would anybody advocate ruthlessness when they didn’t feel it was necessary? And when I talk of its necessity, I refer to progression – forward movement in the direction of liberty and equality – in the direction of greater happiness. It could be argued that Marxism is not a science and that communism is not an absolute truth, so therefore there’s nothing to justify what has been done in its name, yet firstly, whether or not Marx was right is separate debate, and secondly, even if Marx was proven wrong; even if we find that there is no inevitability in communism, such a brilliant concept is surely still worth fighting for.
I conclude by saying that Marxism’s utilitarian nature should be realised, as the two theories will likely benefit from what the other has to provide; currently, whilst many do acknowledge why Marx’s ideas should be vindicated, many don’t, and a sturdy, underling justification would do a good job in providing a simple explanation in this regard. I think it’s even possible to argue that, similarly, utilitarianism lends itself to a Marxist interpretation, due to the ideas it values placing the state of the majority in society above all else, which is also an idea worth exploring. The political views of Jeremy Bentham, one of, if not the most important figure in the founding and development of contemporary utilitarianism, reflect this.
I think your most recent blog (Oct 9) is extremely brave and I have a huge amount of respect for you. My thoughts are with you and your family at this time.
I thought your piece on Utilitarianism and Marxism was really well written and excellently argued. I am sure that you have more important things to consider at this time than my comments below, but if you need something to keep you occupied then I have set out below one of the problems that I have always had with Marxism.
If we put to one side philosophical objections to utilitarianism (virtue ethics, religion, existentialist ethics, liberalism etc.) then I suppose the fundamental question is whether Marxism could indeed lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. My instincts are that the level of state authority required to create and maintain a Marxist economic order would always reduce the sum total of happiness by more than the resulting economic justice would increase it, because people value individual liberty freedom above material conditions – but then it is easy for someone living in the prosperous West to take that view. I suppose the “individual liberty” that I enjoy is the freedom to enjoy a high standard of living at the expense of others. Is this a point you have considered?
I completely understand if you don’t reply to this post. Well done again on the excellent blog. Inspirational stuff.
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Thank you so much and I really like your point – it’s something I really considered when I was thinking about whether Marxism and utilitarianism are compatible.
Ultimately, I’d say that whilst capitalism strives to create happiness for a minority (at the expense of an exploited majority), socialism does so for a majority (at the expense of an exploitive minority) so utilitarian ideas still apply. True, the creation of a centralised economy will lead to a loss in some happiness as it restricts individual liberties when they clash with popular interests, but I believe that happiness of this sort is only possible at the expense of these interests, so a socialist redistribution of wealth does exemplify the Greatest Happiness Principle. It’s also worth remembering that communism entails the idea of a classless society, and thus encourages economic liberties in the sense that it seeks to end all career-based regimentation and promotes individual leisure.
Obviously, this is a theoretical ideal, and you could argue that, in practise, communism leads to a net loss of happiness in society. I’d argue that even if we can be certain this has been the case in communist countries, we shouldn’t let socialism be defined by these early attempts at equality, and that we should recognise the true values and ideas communism stands upon.
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Great reading your poost