Marxism as the Practice of “Goodness”
Author: LV, Xulong Source: Marxism 21
Abstract: In Marx’s view, Equality, Justice and Freedom are all appearances of Goodness. It is goodness, our nature that distinguishes human being from animal being. To live a life ‘consciously’ instead of ‘spontaneously’, this is the real meaning of freedom. So, ‘non-alienation is goodness, and goodness is freedom’, this is a conclusive expression of the view of Marxism on people’s liberation. Therefore, the fundamental purpose of all of our social activities should be seeking goodness rather than abstract truth.
Keywords: Marxism; seeking goodness; practice of virtue
I. Why was Marx right?
After the Wall Street financial crisis in 2008, Terry Eagleton wrote the book Why Marx Was Right, which swept the world and sparked widespread discussion in China’s intellectual circles. Many of my friends told me they believed that Marx was right more than ever after reading the book. However, my truly firm belief that Marx was right comes from my academic visits and tours to foreign countries.
I went to Manila, Philippines, in 2004. Next to the bustling shops and skyscrapers, I saw a railroad. One or two meters away from the tracks, there were densely clustered shacks. They were constructed from thin slabs, and it seemed a gust of wind could blow them down. Inside, there was nothing but one or two pieces of blanket or banana leaves for people to cover themselves in bed. There were also some children who didn’t have their pants on. I remember that I bought a sweet melon at the street corner. When I was about to cut it open, I saw seven or eight children standing there staring at me. I felt sorry for them in my heart, so I gave them the melon and left quickly.
Later, when I met intellectuals in the Philippines, I asked them why the government did not help people in poverty. The Philippines is known as “the country of thousands of islands,” and it has fertile lands and rich products. There are all sorts of fruits and foods in the countryside, such as bananas, coconuts, mangoes, pineapples and sugar cane, which grow by themselves. People can easily feed on them. My friends told me that there were nearly one million of the poorest living in the city of Manila. They were used to the bustling metropolis, and they simply could not stay in the quiet countryside. When the government drove them outside the city by truck, they returned in one or two days on foot. After several attempts, the government that boasted of its democracy had to give up and let them wander in the city. They could only give birth to babies since they were extremely bored, and they became more bored after giving birth to babies. This goes on again and again, and nothing can change it.
I saw different scenes when I was in Detroit in 2009 and 2010. The aura of the former world car-manufacturing center had faded, and only the General Motors headquarters building was still standing majestically by Lake Michigan. Weeds grew in the ruins of towers in the downtown area two or three kilometers away. At night, homeless people curled up in abandoned cars, or lay next to abandoned furniture, exuding odors and alcohol fumes from their fat and bloated bodies. Visitors were advised not to go out after dark because this was a desperate city. It was highly uncertain whether people would die in silence or rebel in the dark.
When I studied political economics, the teacher talked about the stock market crash in New York in 1929. He said that the capitalists made their employees pour buckets of fresh milk into the sea in order to maintain their profits. I have never witnessed such evil waste, so I was skeptical about Marx’s inference on the economic crisis. Now, I have seen that the capitalists blew up the habitable high-rise buildings in order to protect the real estate business, letting vagrants sleep outside and not caring about what happened to them. Increasing polarization between the rich and the poor has destroyed the image of the United States as a model of democracy.
As Martin and Schumann said in Globalization Trap, “In fact, nowhere is like the United States, which is the origin of capitalist counterrevolution, showing the social decline so clearly in the end: criminal crimes are epidemic like a plague . . . 28 million Americans, which are more than 1/10 of the country’s total population of residents, live in high-rise buildings with strict guard, with fortifications built in the residential areas.” The outcome of the neoliberalism advocated by the United States is a well-to-do minority and a lost majority. I have witnessed the tragedy, so I sincerely hope that China can find a path of socialism with distinctive characteristics and its own way to participate in globalization, rather than repeating the mistakes of the West.
I lived in Canada in 2005 and 2006, and I saw the other side of a welfare state. A reporter secretly tracked a road construction project and found out that the progress made by more than a dozen workers was less than 20 km in a week. The TV news showed that this group of workers went to work at 8:30 a.m. They got the materials ready and preparations completed by about 10 o’clock, and then had a coffee break for half an hour. They worked for two hours afterward and had one hour for lunch. They had another coffee break for half an hour in the afternoon, and went off duty promptly at 4:30 p.m. They were extremely inefficient and were not supervised.
I asked my friend in Canada why blue-collar jobs such as those in road maintenance, sanitation and the postal service were easy and well paid. (These sectors received direct financial grants from government tax revenues, which was very similar to the “big rice bowl” system adopted in the era of the planned economy in China.) My friend told me that the labor union was powerful, and the elected government, regardless of which party was in power, did not dare to offend them. Fortunately, Canada is vast and sparsely populated with exceptionally rich natural resources, and does not have a burdensome defense budget. Therefore, the welfare policies help to attract people from all over the world to settle there. But it is clear that China cannot follow suit.
My experience of living abroad tells me that both the American and Canadian models are unreliable. In the 21st century when the world is becoming more globalized, what other countries can teach us is more and more limited. Chinese people can only rely on our own wisdom to find a suitable path for development. Otherwise, China will inevitably be reduced to a vassal of the developed western countries.
II. Marxism as the philosophy of seeking goodness
The question “was Marx a philosopher?” is worthy of serious consideration, just like the question “is there philosophy in China?” As a university teacher specializing in philosophical studies and engaged in teaching Marxism, I believe that the answers to these questions are not simply academic. They are also about the fundamental issues of living and the realization of the value of life.
Many western and Chinese scholars think that Marx was not a true philosopher, or that Marxism is an outdated ideology. For example, Bertrand Russell made the classic comment in History of Western Philosophy (chapter 27): “Considered purely as philosopher, Marx has grave shortcomings. He is too practical, too much wrapped up in the problems of his time. His purview is confined to this planet, and, within this planet, to man. Since Copernicus, it has been evident that Man has not the cosmic importance which he formerly arrogated to himself. No man who has failed to assimilate this fact has to call his philosophy scientific.” (Bertrand, R: 1979: 753)
This passage shows that it is a tradition among contemporary Western thinkers to try to make philosophy a science. This tradition, which is called analytical philosophy (its origin can be traced to Aristotle and Plato in ancient Greece), is keen on the concept, reasoning and judgment. In comparison, Marxism does not seem to have a clear conceptual system. There are neither strict logical deductions nor grand abstract metaphysical constructions. Therefore it cannot be called a true philosophy.
Obviously, if the function of philosophy is limited only to creating clear semantics, providing a strict and clear ideal language for thinking then nothing to do with changing the world. Instead of saying that Marx was a philosopher, I would rather say that he was an anti-philosopher. (French philosopher Etienne Balibar argued that Marx “was perhaps the greatest modern anti-philosopher.”) This is because Marx did not recognize the existence of an aloof rational subject, denied the existence of neutral observers standing outside the world away from any background, and denied that we can build an objective language that is separated from the real world but can also be universally true.
According to Marx, cognitive subjects constitute part of the world as they are people of flesh and blood. Thus, the belief in universal rationality must be subject to the cognition of a variety of social languages (such as gender, class and ethnicity) and lifestyle. For example, as he said in the 1844 Manuscript, “One basis for life and another basis for science is a priori a lie. . .Natural science will in time subsume under itself the science of man, just as the science of man will subsume under itself natural science: there will be one science.” (Marx, K, 2007)
Marx argued in Theses on Feuerbach that our thoughts are formed in the process of transforming the world, and therefore, “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question.” (Marx, K, 2002)The fundamental starting point and the final destination of the doctrine of Marxism is whether the world can be changed and how to return to the ideal state of life (comprehensive development of human freedom) from bad situations (such as the alienation of labor, commodity fetishism, and consumerism). In Marx’s view, the fundamental purpose of all of our activities is to seek goodness rather than abstract truth.
The long history of philosophy also shows that thinkers like Marx were not a minority who strongly opposed making the understanding of human nature metaphysical. Socrates in ancient Greece and Confucius and Mencius in China all asserted that cognitive activity was aimed at improving and perfecting our lives. For example, they argued that “virtue is knowledge” (Socrates, Dialogue) and that “the doctrine of the Great Learning is to enlighten the brilliant virtue, to make intimate association with people, and to strive to attain the highest accomplishment” (Zengzi, The Great Learning). More recently, Wittgenstein said in On Certainty that, “Our languge-game is an extension of primitive behaviour” (Rhees, R, 2003:163)which means that we have to change the way we behave if we want to change our thinking and feeling completely. Only when we say farewell to philosophy, which is regarded as the “mirror of nature,” can we truly be concerned with humanity’s survival and find our own spiritual home.
Obviously, we have seen different answers about the relationship between “knowing” and “doing.” Analytical philosophy advocates “knowing, then doing”—that is, systematic explanation of the world comes first (through basic assumptions, abstract principles, logical reasoning, and the like), and then our action is guided by the interpretation. Under this philosophical view, it is most important to find out whether an explanation of the world is true, as this determines whether the actions based on it are correct.
In contrast, transformative philosophy emphasizes “the unity of knowing and doing”—that is, unity is ultimately achieved through the dialectical movement of knowing and doing. This philosophy focuses on the goodness of the result, and any means is valuable as long as it can achieve perfection. Obviously, Marxism is a transformative philosophy because it emphasizes the testing role of practice instead of pursuing abstract truth. “It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world.” (Marx, K, 1970). It is good to solve real-world problems, and it is bad when real problems cannot be solved (no matter how wonderfully they are described).
III. Life is the practice of virtue: The real meaning of the Marxist concept of practice
Is the Communist ideal utopian? This is a question that I have had to answer often since I have been engaged in the teaching of Marxism. I was confused about this question before, but now I am sure that people of conscience cannot forget about this pursuit, otherwise life will become pale and even meaningless.
As far as family is concerned, we hope that our families are communist. Husband and wife care for each other and “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor” (Marx, K. Critique of the Gotha Programme). This is the basic condition for a harmonious family. It also reflects humankind’s most interlinked aesthetic orientation, and it has been true in all countries at all times.
As far as extended family is concerned, we also hope that our families are communist. Siblings help each other and “share happiness and suffering.” In other words, we always hope that the logic of capital does not play a role in our own families and that brotherhood is really just about “from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs” (Marx, K. Critique of the Gotha Programme).
As far as friends and acquaintances are concerned, we hope that our own circle of connections is communist to a certain degree—that colleagues, classmates and neighbors are honest with each other and “the free development of each is the condition for free development of all” (Marx, K. Communist Manifesto).
Therefore, communism is not abstract and remote, it is always in the hearts of everyone. As people of flesh and blood, it seems that we cannot be completely unselfish. On the other hand, we cannot be completely selfish. As Marx said, we ourselves have constructed human nature.
Will labor become the first need of life? This is not a scientific question, but a moral and practical proposition. After all, not everyone in this world can become a saint, but it is not so bad that there are no saints at all. Should one become a mortal or a saint? Ultimately, we are creating ourselves.
“Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains” The famous saying by Rousseau seems to sum up the fate of modern people: The material world is increasingly rich while the spiritual world is growing barren.
So, what is freedom? Is it an unrestrained state (what Isaiah Berlin would describe as negative liberty), or the ability to make choices (Berlin’s positive liberty)?
Proponents of consumerism advocate that people are the body of desire and consumption is freedom. Neoliberalism tells people that, in order to achieve an ideal society, we should not worry about how many houses and cars the rich have. Instead, we should try to make the “cake” bigger, and society will be harmonious as long as the poorest people are fed and clothed. Numerous scholars supported this view until we saw that the endless expansion in production under globalization has caused the tragic reality of resource depletion, environmental degradation, and frequent wars. The magnificent dreams have shattered as the ice has melted in the Arctic Ocean.
From the existentialist view, people are the subject of free will, and to choose is freedom. Sartre said, “Freedom is people’s destiny.” The only thing that people are not free to choose is that they cannot avoid making free choices. Thus, anyone can and must choose from a variety of possibilities. So we shall be responsible for ourselves. “Whereas the existentialist says that the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero.” (Sartre, J. 1949:43).
Existentialism can be wonderful from the point of view of theory. In fact, it is difficult to bring about genuine liberation of individuals if we regard freedom only as the subjective choices of rational subjects. To choose means to compare, and comparison leads to hesitation. The worst-case scenario will be like Buridan’s donkey, which starved to death between two piles of hay with the same quality and the same distance.
The Marxist concept of freedom is neither “negative liberty” nor “positive liberty” but merges these two concepts. In Marx’s view, alienation of labor makes workers suffer, not because their pay is too low or because the work completely deprives them of free choice, but because the mode of production has downgraded them from “consciously” to “spontaneously” in order to maximize profits.
In the 1844 Manuscript, Marx wrote, “As a result, therefore, man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions--eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.”(Marx, K. 2007) Marx believed that a real sense of freedom is only possible by achieving the freedom of humans as humans, and the core of this freedom is human consciousness.
Fundamentally different from that of Sartre, the freedom expressed by Marx has gone beyond the anxiety of choice and is the “freedom” of not needing to choose. You can imagine that when a psychopath suffering from a compulsion to abuse children sees a child, it is a tough choice to abuse the child or not. However, this problem would not arise at all for mentally healthy and well-mannered people, because they have reached “perfection” and can “follow [their] heart’s desire, without transgressing what is right,” as Confucius said.
Similarly, if we are often faced with the torment of choosing whether to work or not on a given day, it only indicates that our mind and body are distorted and unfree, no matter what material progress we have made. As Marx said,“culture, if it develops spontaneously and is not consciously guided, will leave a desert behind it”(Marx, K,1972: 4)
Life is is the practice of virtue and a process of constantly reflecting on and improving ourselves. Marx proved with his lifetime research that we can make ourselves great without seeking God’s help. I chose to explore Marxism because I also hope that my life is a practice seeking goodness and a spiritual journey to save ourselves.
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