Friday, April 25, 2008

Review: The ethics of socialism

by Ray Jones

Workers’ Politics — the ethics of socialism by William Ash. Pbk 340 pages.
Bread Books, PO Box 1806, Coventry CV6 1YJ. £8.00 plus £2.50 P&P.

THE FIRST THING that must be said is that this is a reprint of Ash’s Marxist Morality published in 1998. I’m not sure that the change of title was a good idea as it may cause confusion and I think the original was more to the point but if you haven’t already read Marxist Morality the age of the work should not put you off Workers’ Politics — essentially the work is not dated.

The second thing to say about this work is that to get the most out of it you should ideally have a grounding in bourgeois philosophy and a knowledge of Marxist political economy. This book, then, is not easy reading — particularly the first part.

Here Ash attempts in a concise way to show, largely successfully, the shortcomings of bourgeois ethics (although I have some problems with his treatment of utilitarianism). And he attempts to prove, less successfully I think, that a Marxist ethics can be derived from Marxist political economy and the theory of value.

This seems to me to be a valiant attempt at a significant task but one that in the end fails to convince and is perhaps doomed to failure. In essence Ash appears to be committing the error that he accuses others of — the “naturalistic fallacy”. He describes what is the case — the Marxist theory of value — and from that tells us what we ought to do, what ought to be the case — Marxist morality.

Perhaps I just didn’t grasp it but I don’t see how Ash achieves this vital shift from “is” to “ought”. I got the feeling that there was a logical blurring in between.

But then I tend to think that there is no Marxist morality as such — only class moralities — with no way of objectively assessing the morality of the ruling class against that of the working class and finding one superior to the other, by some higher moral rule. Or to put it another way, Marxist morality just is working class morality, tidied-up and clarified.

The two moralities just conflict and you choose one or the other (or they, or circumstances, choose you) or you dither in between.

The second part of Workers, Politics applies the now “proved” Marxist morality to politics and world events and makes very interesting, and rather easier reading, with many astute insights and sharp points.