Friday, January 11, 2008
The ex-Communist turned moral critic of Communism is often a figure of genuine pathos. He confronts the Stalinist with attitudes that in many ways deserve our respect - and yet there is something acutely disquieting about him. I am not speaking now, of course, of those who exchange the doctrines of Stalinism for those of the Labour Party leadership, the Congress for Cultural Freedom or the Catholic Herald. They have their reward. I mean those whose self-written epitaph runs shortly, ' I could remain no longer in the Party without forfeiting my moral and intellectual self-respect; so I got out.' (A. H. Hanson, An Open Letter to Edward Thompson, N.R. No. 2, p.79.) They repudiate Stalinist crimes in the name of moral principle; but the fragility of their appeal to moral principle lies in the apparently arbitrary nature of that appeal.
The ex-communist had, by acquiescing in liberal morality, exchanged “one dominant pattern of thought for another; but the new pattern gives them the illusion of moral independence.” For the Stalinist, objective laws were to be found in the historical process, into which morality could be conveniently deliquesced. For the liberal, no such laws existed. Morality could be no more grounded in history than football could be grounded in astrophysics. Only the individual voice mattered, and from there all moral claims radiated, acquiring greater or lesser consensus. “Here I stand. I can do no other.” The critic in this way authorises herself to criticise, but at the cost of reducing the moral claim to arbitrariness. Thus:
The individual confronting the facts with his values condemns. But he can only condemn in the name of his own choice. The isolation which his mode of moral thinking imposes on the critic can tempt him in two directions. There is the pressure, usually much exaggerated by those who write about it, to exchange the participation in a Stalinist party for some other equally intense form of group membership. But there is also the pressure, far less often noticed, to accept the role of the isolated moral hero, who utters in the name of no one but himself. Ex-Stalinists who pride themselves on having become hard-headed realists seem to be peculiarly prone to this form of romanticism. They are the moral Quixotes of the age.
Not only that, but although they may as ex-communists continue to belabour non-communist governments in a display of impartiality, their ground has already been bought and reserved by the ruling classes. The “Western social pattern has a role all ready for the radical moral critic to play. It is accepted that there should be minorities of protest on particular issues.” And if one insists that one’s values are private matters, if morality is an autonomous sphere, all the better – if there is no shared public standard by which one’s claims can be judged, one’s opponents can also claim to be motivated by personally significant values. The only beguiling political question then becomes one of sincerity versus hypocrisy. The former Prime Minister can say “I honestly did what I believed was right”, and that becomes the last word on his probity until such time as we can crack his head open and apply some technological wizardry to discover whether he ‘really’ believed it was right to invade Iraq or not. Macintyre thus accuses the moral critic of “imagining that moral knight errantry is compatible with being morally effective in our form of society.”
Now, Macintyre associates this problem with the Reformation and the reconstruction of morality as a series of “divine fiats”, “totally arbitrary”, entirely unconnected with people’s lives. I don’t know how to assess that (although my inner Orange bigot says it’s the fenian in him), but I like the way he associates morality with desire. For Macintyre, morality represents “the more permanent and long-run of human desires”. Moral codes prohibiting imperialist murder, for example, express a long-term, public desire about how we should live. I can see the logic. As a good liberal moralist, you might simply start by taking the Decalogue and so on, removing God from the equation and stripping out all those crazy commandments that are incompatible with late capitalist life, (whether that means removing the misogynistic stuff, or the genocidal material, or merely those commandments that conflict with good commercial sense, such as the rule against coveting). So, instead of “Do this because you will benefit from it, it serves your desires etc”, or “Do this because God commands it”, which is arbitrary enough, you get “Do this”. Morality is thus totally divorced from desire, which is totally ineffectual. It mirrors the Stalinist gesture in which the sole effective basis for morality is the historical process which, at best, one might give a nudge in its predetermined direction (a consolatory doctrine). Not only that, but in its focus on the ‘I’ of the norm, it is logocentric.
Problematically, Macintyre seeks to close the gap between morality and desire by appealing to a Marxian version of ‘human nature’ in which people overcome the anarchic individualistic desires convoked by capitalism and ‘rediscover’ some ancient socialistic desire through collective solidarity. It seems at first blush to repeat the mistake of the historical determinist, with the idea that there could be a foundation for morality in something ‘objective’ about human beings. On closer examination, however, it is apparent that his ‘human nature’ is not really human nature as it is ordinarily understood. ‘Human nature’ would appear to be a set of capacities that are constantly under negotiation, constantly being reconstructed through historical processes. In that way, socialist morality would be historicist without being determinist. The socialist would justify moral claims both in terms of the historical processes and in terms of the desire that is convoked by them.