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Bourgeois Moralism

Bourgeois moralism continues to haunt the left even though some of us should know better.  Some of the predictably banal responses to Thatcher's death, for example, are proof of this haunting: that, in the midst of all the laudable celebration of a dead reactionary, you have the occasional "leftist" chiming in with some appeal to liberal humanistic platitudes ("celebrating the death of any human is wrong", or "we socialists should be more humane", or etc.) was annoying but predictable.  Thankfully, there are enough people who remember the violence of Thatcher's politics countering this pseudo-Gandhian ideology that, for once, this moralism was buried in an avalanche of anti-Thatcher articles and parties.  And so, because I don't feel the need to write what so many people have written already, I'm not going to bother posting an obituary about why there is nothing wrong with celebrating the death of a reactionary.  Rather, I think it is simply important to note that these outraged responses to the anti-Thatcher funereal celebrations represent a clear symptom of the liberal humanism that is often quite compelling for the average anti-capitalist.

Indeed, some of the reactions to my most recent post made me interested in blogging again on the problem of bourgeois moralism––reactions that are part of the same symptom that encouraged some to preach to the anti-Thatcher celebrants about our shared humanity and the sadness one must feel when one member of the species dies.  The very same mindset is behind all complaints that I was possibly being violent and psychotic when I joked about "gulags"; the same mindset that mobilizes simplistic logical equivocation to gleefully argue that there is a great irony in my claim that the oppressor should be oppressed (apparently this is a contradiction because of the word "oppression"!); and probably the same mindset that, oft-times, thinks that socialism––because it is more "moral" than capitalism––can and must be achieved through peaceful means.

Some of us take Marx and Engels' claim that the expropriator must be expropriated seriously.  We believe, and with historical justification, that a ruling class that maintains its rule through violence is not going to cease expropriating, exploiting, and oppressing without being violently overthrown.  While we do not celebrate the quite often tragic necessity of violence, we do not equivocate according to utopian and abstract logic. And we tend to treat all attempts to defend the "humanity" of the oppressor, and the banal moralism that is behind these attempts, as expressions of ruling class ideology.  Moreover, when we are forced to think through the problems elicited by revolutionary necessity we end up being faced with the problem of enforcing socialism against the remaining elements of the reactionary classes and, by examining world historical revolutions, wondering about what mechanisms will prevent the next revolution from being overthrown.

As the linked articles in the above paragraph should demonstrate, I've been thinking through this problem for some time and am of the opinion that it cannot be answered by abstract appeals to a shared humanity and moral purity.  After all, to have a discussion about some pure and shared morality is to have a discussion where there is always an uninvited guest who defines the terms of this discussion: bourgeois morality.  And since I've discussed this problem in the aforelinked posts, and there is a lot of intersection in these posts (as well as others I did not cite), I am not going to repeat my arguments here.

Rather, I want to wonder at the hegemony of bourgeois humanism and why it is so compelling.  The easy answer, which is true on a conceptual level, is that those of us who think according to these patterns have simply been socialized since birth according to the "common sense" ideology of liberalism.  And I would be lying if I pretended as if I was outside of this socialization: it is not as if I'm some coldly calculating robot who psychotically praises mechanisms of class suppression, who rubs his hands gleefully whenever a reactionary dies, and who has never at any point in his life been drawn to the anti-communist narrative that has presented "gulags" and reeducation as the unqualified evil of totalitarianism.  So there is a reason this moralism is compelling, and though this reason in the last instance can be located in ruling class ideology, it still requires more investigation.

There is the fact, after all, that many people who end up adopting a socialist-style politics have been drawn to these politics because they have also glimpsed, however crudely, the actual contradiction of bourgeois morality.  (Unless we have done so, as one funny but probably bio-determinist study recognized, because we are just more intelligent than our conservative counterparts.)  Trained to recognize the sanctity of the human species, which is not by itself a bad thing, we are forced to wonder at the inequity of this sanctity: why is it okay for x people to be slaughtered in the name of the same values that apply only y people––is not "an injustice for some an injustice for all"?  By following this question, which emerges from liberal humanism, to what appears, at first glance, as its logical conclusion we end up locating our politics within a concept of human commonality where everyone is an equal rights bearer and any imperialist/capitalist justification that bases itself on the same principles (i.e. "humanitarian intervention") is immediately grasped as a grand moral deceit.

For some of us, this foray into a universal notion of humanism is enough to provide a radical break with the status quo interpretation of morality and is thus quite laudable.  The problem, however, is that we never really followed the problem of liberal humanism to its logical conclusion; we only followed it to the first moment of contradiction.  We never did ask why this ideology continues to generate, despite all claims of universal humanity, an exclusionary concept of the human species where it can use the very same maxim––an injustice for some is an injustice for all––to promote the "humanitarian interventions" we find abhorrent.  Inversely, then, we are incapable of declaring solidarity with the revolutionary movements of the system's victims who do not feel that the "injustice" they level upon their oppressors is "an injustice for all".  For if we accept this maxim in an unqualified sense then we must be forced, on the plane of the most asinine abstract logic, to agree that the violence of the oppressed against the oppressor is identical to the violence of the oppressor against the oppressed (even though the former is a response to oppression and sometimes, in its most revolutionary variant, aimed at the possibility of ending all oppression) because both do not recognize a common and shared humanity.

"We are all humans!  PROPER humans…"

(A side note… Here we find ourselves trapped in the problem of post-modern political praxis: the rejection of totalization means the inability to decide on precisely what counts as oppression outside of some bland and toothless notions of "stand-point ethics" and "subalternity".  Interestingly enough, post-modernism does reject the concept of the human subject and thus attempts to place itself, in its own way, outside of bourgeois humanism… But at the same time it ends up reincorporating the content of this bourgeois humanism within its notion of the decentred subject which is precisely the sublimated bourgeois subject.  Why?  Because there is no one that is being oppressed, since there is nothing that can be oppressed due to the fact that there is no basis for declaring what counts as oppression.  If all attempts to establish oneself as a subject, even collectively, are doomed to become murderous, and all revolutionary ideologies are "totalizing" (no more or less "totalizing", once the theory is reduced to its political implications, then the status quo of domination) then every movement with a coherent politics that provides a narrative is an instance of murderous power.  Upon this pedestal, which is ultimately a dead-end for revolution, is built identity politics which is a perfect example of bourgeois moralism: while claiming to be radical, especially in its thorough recognition of sites of oppression and privilege, it does so in the most moralistic sense.  But again, all of this is a [rather hasty] tangental point which I may or may not unpack in a future post…)

Of course, it is worth recognizing that Marx did tend to philosophically ground the necessity of socialism/communism upon the concept of a specific notion of human commonality.  In the introduction to the Grundrisse, for example, he distinguishes his approach from bourgeois political economy by declaring solidarity with the concept of the social rather than individual animal.  Elsewhere, both Marx and Engels were wont to speak of socialism as being a humanization (or more properly "rehumanization") of society.  And yet, as much as this is important on an abstract theoretical level, it is clear that Marx understood this final "humanization" as something that was only possible outside of a bourgeois humanism that understands the bourgeois concept of "Man" (and here I am intentionally using the gendered concept because it really does speak to the ideology of bourgeois humanism and was not a concept, in my opinion, accidentally chosen by bourgeois utopians) as being universal.  And it is precisely this understanding of humanity, which is one thoroughly compromised by a class society which can only speak of humanity according to bourgeois rights, that is behind our "common sense" morality.

We are drawn to a vague humanitarian ethics because we glimpse the contradictions of bourgeois morality, because we see the rational kernel behind its platitudes, but we are still caught up in its ideology: we see "rights" violated and we are enraged, we must be equally enraged when "the sanctity of life" of reactionaries are mocked by the victims of said reactionaries.  We do not think of the necessities that can sling-shot us past this bourgeois humanism of equal rights.  We do not often grasp what it might mean to struggle for a deeper concept of humanization because we cannot recognize that the current ideology of "common humanity", where everyone must be murderously subordinated to the only people who count as human, is actually standing in the way of the re/humanization proclaimed by Marx and Engels.  We are troubled by the notion that the expropriators must be expropriated in order for such a moment of commonality to actually exist; we want to believe that this commonality can already be understood and that, in order to be truly moral, we have to equivocate between the rights of the oppressed and the rights of the oppressors… But between equal rights, as Marx pointed out in the first volume of Capital, greater force decides.

Obviously I am reaching the point of philosophical obscurantism, if I haven't reached it already, and I apologize if I've been too hasty or opaque.  The best way to escape with this descent into conceptual interrogation––a descent, I think it is only fair to argue, into which this bourgeois humanism necessarily leads––is to simply point out something that should be terrifyingly obvious: those who concretely occupy the social positions of exploitation and/or oppression do not care about the shared humanity  of their exploiters/oppressors.  That is, the agent of revolution has never needed to be convinced of its agency because of some ethical assumption of a "shared humanity" or any of that sentimental moralism that has convinced some of us ("some of us" generally a cipher for economic/social privilege and petty-bourgeois academicism) to question bourgeois morality.

If you have nothing left to lose but your chains, and are forced to recognize the class responsible for enforcing these chains, you are not drawn to revolution because of some moralistic argument but because you viscerally recognize the necessity… And this is the moment, if properly understood, where all moralistic arguments about violence––the ethics of revolutionary violence, the death of reactionaries, etc.––are annihilated.  Does a revolutionary movement consisting of the most wretched of the earth spend much time contemplating the humanity of those whose Humanity is premised upon this very wretchedness?  The question is rather rhetorical because it is extremely doubtful: Fanon, for instance, talks about how the oppressed/exploited masses' "permanent dream" is to tear the oppressor/exploiter from hir pedestal.  And in the face of this permanent dream all of us who speak of revolution and socialism will be forced to reassess our politics.


  1. Thanks for this, as always. Reading your post I was thinking about the debates that have gone on between humanistic and anti-humanist Marxists, and I remember it being something that has come up in our discussions of what constitutes science, and its function compared to ideology.

    So, thinking this, I was surprised to see you bring up Fanon at the very end. Fanon grasped this problem more firmly than almost anyone else, probably due to his participation in both revolutionary militancy and in treatment and counseling of victims of torture at the hands of the French. Fanon was a deep humanist, but he didn't take humanity as a given. Oppressed peoples had been shorn of their humanity by their oppressors. And oppressors had their own humanity deformed as a result. The old 'lord and bondsman' story from Hegel that Fanon, Freire, and Huey Newton all put to work to varying effect. For Fanon, the way to become more fully human was to fight against national oppression, but then the task of a revolutionary national project was to develop the universal potential that existed within a free and unaligned nation's development.

    What I'm trying to suggest here, in outline, is that there need be no absolute distinction between humanism and revolutionary consciousness. Just because Liberalism claims to represent a universal human morality doesn't mean it can deliver on that promise. As you clearly point out, what is universal in liberal theory is chauvinist in practice due to the nature of exploitation, imperialist violence, and relationships of domination in the family and on the street that obtain under that exploitation and violence.

    But. Doesn't that mean that the goal of critical consciousness and collective action is to OBTAIN our collective humanity through struggle and transformation, of ourselves and the world? The two things are in contradiction, surely, but that only means that we must do what Liberalism cannot- resolve the contradiction between the claim to universal human morality on the one hand, and the reality of oppression, exploitation, and domination that underly those supposedly universal claims?


    Marq Dyeth

    1. Hello:

      I'm in agreement with many of your comments here and I was trying to be clear that the "humanism" I was problematizing was "bourgeois humanism". And Fanon is not a bourgeois humanist, nor do I think we can use the term "humanism" (as it has come to be understood because of bourgeois humanism) to apply to him unless we also want to apply it to Marx (and not the young Marx). He's a "humanist" only insofar as he talks about a concept of the human subject, but so does Marx, and this is where I break from Althusser's extreme "anti-humanism"––but then again, Althusser, even by his own admission, was bending the stick too far to correct a mistaken position. In fact, I think Fanon's position is completely congruent with revolutionary communism and I read Fanon as a historical materialist. All of this has to do with much of my academic work where I have argued that it is necessary to have a concept of the human subject in order to coherently understand oppression and praxis… But that is another issue altogether, but it should be seen as in agreement with your last paragraph.

      I am not against a concept of universal notions of human subjecthood, I am against the false universalization of bourgeois humanism and liberal morality that imagines there can be a morality, right now, beyond class without recognizing the class structure and thus reifying the humanity of the ruling class... if that makes any sense.

    2. Thanks for the clarification! I see what you mean now.


  2. I'm new to this blog, been looking for some intelligent radical commentary for some time. Although I don't consider myself a communist, I would like to educate myself more in that perspective, but also offer some challenges (though they are based on my limited understanding, I admit).

    Now this "Bourgeois Morality," as you call it - universal human rights and equality for all - why is this "bourgeois"? Because if such rights are absolute, then you are not allowed to kill anyone or put them in gulags, making revolution impossible? I think I can agree with that, in that nothing is absolute. I think that the greater good (if it is great enough) can sometimes necessitate murder and unjust imprisonment. But I also believe this is a very dangerous line to cross. Isn't universal morality an expression of our solidarity with other human beings simply due to their shared humanity? Which is the reason we'd want to have a revolution to begin with? When you are willing to violate human rights in the name of human rights, you run the risk of ideological self-destruction. In order to lessen the cognitive dissonance, you must dehumanize those you kill. They are "reactionaries" - basically scum, not worthy of life and freedom. You must refuse to recognize your shared humanity with these "oppressors." You look into their eyes and see not human, but subhuman. And at that point, you have crossed the line, violated all your principles, and become the oppressor yourself. Pretty soon, anyone you disagree with can simply be labeled a "reactionary" and summarily dismissed, perhaps sent to a gulag where you don't have to deal with their questioning.

    The logic is almost inevitable, and we've seen it play out time and again. How do you avoid it? You must always acknowledge your shared humanity with everyone, even those you consider your enemies. That doesn't mean you can't fight against them, but it does mean that you will make every effort to not violate their rights. You only fight against them to the extent necessary to ensure the protection of your own rights. At that point, you stop. Even if you perceive that it would be a risk to the revolution to let people out of the gulag, you must do so. The greater risk is that by dehumanizing your enemies, you become the demon you're trying to fight. And you will alienate people instead of uniting them behind you. You simply perpetuate the Us Versus Them drama that has been the cause of war and misery for all of human history.

    Now I realize that all this rights-talk is not exactly in the vein of Marx. Revolution is a historical necessity, not a moral necessity, correct? As you say in the last paragraph, workers sense the "visceral necessity" of revolution and and that point there is no more need for morality. However, I think that Marxists are ultimately motivated by universal morality. If revolution is historically inevitable, why bother writing about it? And why do you care how quickly it comes, if not for moral reasons?

    Again, forgive me if this is all completely off base - I'm not exactly a Marx scholar. But that's my understanding, and feel free to try enlightening me if you wish.

    1. You should read the back-links. Also, it feels as if you've glossed over much of the contradictory moments I have noted and thus your comments feel somewhat off-base. I have no problems with the belief that there is a universality we can speak of when it comes to ethics, but I do not think this happens on the plane of rights––it happens on the plane of needs, and a lot has been made of this. The emergence of rights does come from a liberal conception of ethics and is actually quite exclusionary at the end of the day. Thus, as even the above exchange of comments should be clear, I do think it is important to note a concept of shared human subjecthood, but I think that the commonality focused upon by bourgeois humanism is one that ignores the fact that in a class society this commonality is heavily mediated by the morality of the ruling class that speaks in the name of universality.

      Your claim that I am speaking of "dehumanizing" the enemy is off-base. The larger argument I am making is that bourgeois humanism is by nature dehumanizing to those upon who the ruling class is parasitically dependent upon. Is it dehumanizing to drag this ruling class down to your level and force them not to be dehumanizing oppressors––is that "oppression"? This is precisely the contradiction of liberal morality that gets in the way of revolutionary praxis and you are still thinking according to its categories rather than the universality you claim to espouse. Again, check the back-links which have to do about these problems.

      So yes, as my exchange above yours should make it clear, I do believe in a concept of universality when it comes to marxist ethics, and I have even noted this universality in the paragraphs where I wrote about the philosophical foundation of the human subject in marxist work, but I was addressing bourgeois humanism and liberal morality which is a different beast and stands in the way of this universality.

  3. Trotsky grapples with these questions in Terrorism and Communism, although less in philosophical terms and more along the lines of 'these reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries are trying to kill us and destroy our government, what do you think we're going to do with them?!' So in practice, the philosophical contradictions become much less pressing than the urgent need to defend the revolution. I'm certainly no Trotskist, but I think this is one work that Trotskyists ought to pay particular attention to before they go around moralising about North Korean 'gulags' or supporting the Free Syrian Army (like the ISO does).
    The Fanon quote reminds me of this: A group of 200 women hack their rapist to pieces in a court house after it becomes clear that the law will fail to deliver justice. This is a revolutionary moment in which oppressed, powerless people move en mass to change their lives for the better. They have saved hundreds of other women from pain and humiliation, so why should the puny life of this man outweigh good they have done for society? Bourgeois moralism would say, No they should have let the police deal with him and found some other way to empower themselves because murder is never justified even if it's the murder of a violent serial rapist. This 'respect for human life' becomes a callous cruelty in the face of all the suffering caused by this one man.
    I very much appreciate the intelligent and thoughtful commentary on your blog, especially the article about gulags and MRAs. The idea that counter-revolutionaries need suppressing and reactionaries need reeducating is an extremely unpopular position without a militant revolutionary movement to back it up, which is why I believe it's all the more important to hold this position on the left today, rather than hiding under the proverbial bed and hoping for some spontaneous change of heart from the fascist shitheads of the world.

    1. "Terrorism and Communism" is a piece that most Trotskyists, generally speaking, do not like. I mentioned it in another article on here a couple years back and some Trotskyists were annoyed, claiming it was the worse piece by Trotsky, etc. To be fair, however, some of the more ortho-Trots, although not fans of this piece, do not support the Free Syrian Army.

      Also, as much as we should reject all of this bourgeois moralism, we should also believe that rectification is possible otherwise we are all beyond hope. But believing that we can be reeducated into social[ist] animals is also a way of thinking that is outside of the confines of bourgeois morality.


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