Striking Without Threatening: On Marxism, Ethics, and the Truth of Communism

Date: 2022-07-27T18:48:14+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Roxy Hall responds to ΔΜ’s argument for a Marxist virtue ethics, arguing that Communism is itself a wholly new ethical system. 

Love what you will never believe twice.

                         – Alain Badiou

But I would merely like to reply to your first sentence, in which you said that if you didn’t consider the war you make against the police to be just, you wouldn’t make it.

I would like to reply to you in terms of Spinoza and say that the proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just. The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because, for the first time in history, it wants to take power. And because it will overthrow the power of the ruling class it considers such a war to be just.

– Michel Foucault, in response to Noam Chomsky, 1971 (emphasis mine)

In an essay in Cosmonaut Magazine on the 9th of May, Comrade ΔΜ makes a case firstly for the need for a Marxist approach to ethics, and secondly for a particular form of Marxist ethics rooted in Aristotelian virtues. I appreciate the work of the comrade in putting forward this piece – it is a necessary debate, one that is often considered frivolous and even unMarxist by many writers on the left. This piece began as a response to Comrade ΔΜ, and in some ways still is. However, it has also transformed into a general elucidation of an alternative approach to ethics – one that I think clarifies this debate and provides an alternative direction for these discussions.

The above quote, taken from the now famous debate between American linguist and anarchist Noam Chomsky and French philosopher and cultural critic Michel Foucault, is both the starting and finishing point for my discussion. By assuming that an ethical system can be found within the existing intellectual field to justify revolutionary struggle against capitalism as “just”, we are kept in an intellectual straitjacket that has limited many previous attempts to undertake a serious Marxist accounting of ethics. There is no basis upon which we can say capitalism is unjust within capitalism, as to do so would necessarily gesture to the system of signifiers produced by capitalism itself, or to make reference to some previous form of social life to which we wish to return. The alternative then, is an immanent theory of the good, articulated most clearly and fully by Alain Badiou, as being a force that can only be gestured to from within our current moment. Ethics will not justify the revolution – the revolution will produce the new ethics.

First, a note on definitions. When discussing moral law, as established within the superstructure of a given social formation, I will discuss morality. When discussing attempts to find a correct mode of activity that allows for the Good, I will discuss ethics. This distinction is important, and worth noting at the outset.

We live in an epoch of a unique moral crisis. This is not because our times are particularly evil: though one can argue the contemporary stage of world capitalism’s development has produced particularly moribund and diseased forms of social being. It is because the foundations of moral law – the existence of a singular moral community that shares a common set of social standards, has been largely disintegrated by the social crises of the transition epoch between post-war capitalism (termed Late Capitalism by Ernest Mandel), and our contemporary epoch. The notion of inevitable human progress – the fundamental concept that underpinned the cultural logic we know as Modernity – has been liquidated by a growing unease. Cultural, technical, and social progress seems to be stagnating, and a dark cloud of reaction hangs over many nations. The dual processes of capitalist globalisation and the accumulation of scientific revelations about the nature of reality (quantum mechanics being the most obvious example) has produced an epoch of generalised social malaise – an era of chaotic, fragmented, essentially schizophrenic identities and symbolic chains. In short, it is an epoch of Postmodernity – the cultural logic of capitalism’s terminal epoch.1

In this context, it is no wonder that a search for a new moral law has emerged. As Emma Palese has argued, we live in an era where traditional moral law has collapsed, leaving moral responsibility resting on atomised, disengaged individuals – individuals who are castigated for their inability to “do the right thing” in a world where the “right thing” is ever illusive.2 The moral law that does exist – that of rights, of “social responsibility”, of “sustainability” – seems to be increasingly hollow and fraudulent, a mantra of the damned rather than a reflection of some emancipatory weltgeist.

Any serious discussions of morality should begin with an understanding of what it is. In short, morality is a form of social technology, a construction of shared ideas, beliefs, and institutions that construct a field of value production, where certain behaviours are deemed socially appropriate or are socially maligned. This field, being a domain of cultural creation, is in class societies interpellated by structures of ideology. The view of ideology I will be utilising here is essentially Althusserian (and thus Lacanian) – ideology is a field of cultural and philosophical logics that are produced within the ideological state apparatus and produce contradictory ideological subjectivities. This realm of ideology produces an inverted world, where the Capitalist Real is distorted and perceived through a symbolic realm of ideological constructs. It is an imaginary world, mapped onto our very real social relationships.3

Morality can then be understood as a form of ideology. This can be easily parsed when we look at the history of modern moral philosophy. From Kant to the Utilitarians, through to attempts to revive Aristotelian philosophy, all are utterly interpellated with the logics of class society, and its emphasis on individual right, individual subjectivity, and capitalist reason.

This poses a problem if you are interested in constructing a post-capitalist morality – a revolutionary ethics, so to speak. All moral structures that one can refer to are by their nature already part of the ideological superstructure of capitalist society. One is trapped within the categories offered by bourgeois morality. Fundamentally, capitalism cannot be understood as unjust within the realm of bourgeois morality – for there is no externality to ideology, no capacity to see beyond itself. In insisting that we can take mastery of the bourgeoisie’s own concepts (in this case, moral philosophy), we are led into an ideological trap.

There is no current moral structure that can be referred to to construct a revolutionary ethics – indeed, it is the very fact that the revolution is external to bourgeois morality that makes it revolutionary. The revolutionary force of the proletariat here, is analogous to the Divine Violence of Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Force.

In the final pages of Critique of Force, Walter Benjamin outlines his distinction between the Mythic Violence of Greek myth, and the Divine Violence of the God of Abraham. For Benjamin, the Mythic Violence of Zeus and Hera is a violence of laws, a reassertion of the foundational rules of conduct, meted out as punishment. Even if this punishment is often cruel and merciless, it is still understandable as a form of Law-Making – a violence that creates and perpetuates social structures. In this sense, the Mythic Violence of the Greek gods is comparable to the violence of the modern sovereign state – it constructs law through violence, and even when it breaks and circumvents the law, it does so to maintain sovereignty and power – the real origins of Law. Even the invocation of the State of Exception, the suspension of normal legal norms for the purposes of securing the power of the state, is ultimately understood within and maintains bourgeois sovereignty.4

Counterposed to the sovereign and constituent power of Mythic Violence, is the revolutionary destituent force of Divine Violence. For Benjamin, this violence exists is analogous to that violence meted out by the Abrahamic God. This violence fundamentally undermines the laws set down by God himself: God tells Moses and his followers to abstain from killing, only to kill constantly, and mercilessly, often in arbitrary ways. Ultimately, the violence of the divine stands outside of Law, and cannot be cognised within the frameworks of the Law. It is beyond human comprehension – the Laws of Man do not encompass God, as he is outside of history, outside of morality. As Benjamin writes:

If mythical violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying; if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them; if mythical violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody the latter is lethal without spilling blood.5

As Benjamin says, Divine Violence “strikes” without threatening – it has no need to gesture at itself within the symbolic system of mankind, because it is beyond such things. This, for Benjamin (at least in Zizek’s interpretation6), is the analogue for communist revolution – the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat is a divine, revelatory force, immanentizing the eschatological end state of history. The Revolution, by its nature, cannot be understood by any of those who existed before it – it produces a wholly new subjectivity. In the course of this Event, the Truth of Communism, a new revolutionary ethic, is born not through the class struggle first and foremost. Communism then, is a revelation, the sublime escape from the demiurgic Mythic Violence of the capitalist state.

I will begin to move into the final stage of this discussion by stating a final thesis: there is no communist ethics, for communism IS our ethics. In short, communism produces its own logics, the carrying out of which to their final end inscribes upon our necessary and dutiful actions an ethical weight. This does not mean we are devoid of ethical duties – in fact, communism subjectifies us in such a way that to be derelict in our devotion to its actuality would be a colossal ethical failure and betrayal.

In this I follow closely behind Alain Badiou, whose work has, in my view, placed Marxism upon a new philosophical basis. At the core of Badiou’s ontology is the Event, an emergent force that is not able to be anticipated within the previous forms of logic. Be it the emergence of a new scientific or artistic movement, to birth of love from atomisation and fragmentation, or the revelatory power of communist revolution, the Event is imbued with the destituent force of Benjamin’s Divine Violence – it is totally destructive, and totally new in such a way that it cannot be predicted, only anticipated. This Event produces Truths, new logics that are inscribed upon the Event by its relationship to all previous forms of the social. With the Event of falling in love, the new Truth emerges of Love, and the struggle begins to grow, and nurture, and carry that love as a warrior carries a banner into battle.7

For Badiou then, there is no singular, universal Ethic, but many ethics, produced by the Truth of a given situation. This is not to say that Badiou is a relativist; while there are many situational logics, there is in any given situation a right or wrong ethical judgement. Badiou then, produces no ethics of communism (such a thing is, as I have said, impossible external to its revelation in the revolutionary struggle). However, he has produced a meta-ethical frame within which we can anticipate a communist ethics – that is to take the horizon of communism and attempt to perceive in a limited way its logics, and to follow them through. To be loyal to our ideals, to be brave and heroic, and to do anything it takes to transform the world.8

Chomsky argued, in his famed debate with Foucault, that when engaging in a struggle against bourgeois society, we need to refer to a higher, universal, human justice and right, a justice we hold in order to know our cause is just. In doing so, he fundamentally made an idealist confusion. There is no ethical justification external to the struggle itself. We must begin with the class struggle as a site of the birth of a new ethic: the proletariat does not struggle because it believes itself to be just. It struggles for food, for security, for freedom, for dignity, for power. Our starting point is the real conditions of our lives and our desire to live better, for lives worth living. The justice of such things within bourgeois morality, or law, or right, is immaterial – it is in the struggle for the real conditions of life that a new justice is born.

Is capitalism unjust? In the sense that it can be understood to be unjust within the logics of bourgeois right, and bourgeois subjectivity and morality; in my view, the answer is no. But this should not be our preoccupation. Foucault laid out quite excellently the perspective of the revolutionary communist in this situation: the proletarian struggle is not justified by some higher justice, some appeal to a greater moral good beyond our struggles and aims. No, there is nothing there to reference, nothing for us at least. 

Instead, we only have the struggle, and the immense forces of history that drive it forward. We do not struggle because it is just. We struggle because we can, and will, take power. We will strike without threatening. There is no moral demand to be met. We will make total war upon bourgeois society, and with it, its morality. In its place, perhaps, we will find a new justice – one we will bear forth on the banners of the World October.

Liked it? Take a second to support Cosmonaut on Patreon! At Cosmonaut Magazine we strive to create a culture of open debate and discussion. Please write to us at CosmonautMagazine@gmail.com if you have any criticism or commentary you would like to have published in our letters section.

  1. Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso Books, 2010); Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press, 1991), https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv12100qm.
  2. Emma Palese, “Ethics Without Morality, Morality Without Ethics: Politics, Identity, Responsibility in Our Contemporary World,” Open Journal of Philosophy 3, no. 3 (2013): 366–71, https://doi.org/10.4236/ojpp.2013.33055.
  3. Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Verso Books, 2014).
  4. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005), https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/S/bo3534874.html.
  5. Walter Benjamin, Peter Fenves, and Julia Ng, Toward the Critique of Violence: A Critical Edition (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2021).
  6. Joshua Abraham Kopin, “Walter Benjamin on Divine Violence,” Not Even Past, November 18, 2015, https://notevenpast.org/walter-benjamin-on-divine-violence/.
  7. Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event, 2 (London ; New York: Continuum, 2009).
  8. Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, Radical Thinkers (London: Verso Books, 2013); Badiou, Logics of Worlds.