Man, Morality and Marx

Probably the most contentious assignment for a philosopher would be to find out the true sense of human nature and its distinctive applications. Identification of one’s legitimate existence has widely been recognized as a precious achievement, however, the quest for identity shows our natural impulses to be treated separately from other creatures. Human beings usually place a high value on cooperation, generosity and sympathy, and disapprove of more egotistical behaviour (Robinson & Groves, 2006). The uniqueness of human creativity defended our values and ethos from time immemorial and is still in the process of constant evolution. Through an evolutionary insight, the continuous improvement of individuals, both at the material and moral levels have conspicuously been visualized. The dilemma between the two antithetical elements such as matter and morality imposes a critical conjecture that instead of matter, human morality has paid much attention in developing an enlightened world order. To falsify the dichotomy, Karl Marx, a German- English philosopher, proposed his intellectual and materialistic assumptions for subordinating morality to the matter. Marx never argued directly on the efficacy of morality and its vitality in observing a drastic socio-political and economic progression. Unlike his predecessors, Marx visualized the hanging attitudes of social relationships and their economic exchanges as the most potent force behind social change.

Morality before Marx: Kantian Universalism and Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator

Since antiquity, both moral and political philosophers have been interpreting and trying to understand what the best political and social life could be. The Aristotelian standpoint particularly expressed the deepness of the social existence of human beings and their inclination towards a collective political life (state). As an idealist, Aristotle envisioned a social life that nurtures human potential to be driven by virtues and the common good. The modern conception of morality traced its origin from the ramification of Enlightenment, where medieval superstitions and religious dogmas were criticized and challenged by scientific temperaments. Moral theories of several sorts from the era of enlightenment have this paradigm in common: they seek to apply universal moral principles to specific acts in order to count them as good or bad (Vannatta, 2014).

Immanuel Kant, the great Enlightenment philosopher, designed his arguments to maintain the uniformity among these contrasting principles, helping evolve with a sense of optimism and with an aesthetic manifestation of the human nature. Here one might disagree with the Marxian principle of internal contradictions, but is it important to note that the universality of Kantian morality ignores natural conflicts between two opposite dimensions and defeats the very human reason for wanting to acquire peaceful coexistence. In his deontological moral theory, Kant argues that it is not the consequences rather the duty of a person that determines the rightness and wrongness of his/her action. The first principle of Kant’s famous philosophical reasoning – “Categorical imperatives”, states that one should “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1785) and the second one goes “so act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in other, always as an end and never as only a means” (Ibid). As a contemporary of Kant, Adam Smith developed his standard of morality by giving adequate space for economic freedom with a limited government. In his celebrated work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith amalgamated his economic theory of free-market with the inner consciousness of the individual. Smith was concerned about the invisible hand of the economic system that works
for both material happiness and moral regeneration; in a market system, the outcomes are being defined as an extension of human capacities. The present globalized economy has derived its survival from the political economy of Adam Smith, whose methods of demand and supply, rationality and others are continuously influencing our present world order.

Having understood the role of a free economy, Smith defined that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities, but of their advantages” (Smith, 1776). Unlike German Enlightenment, the Scottish Enlightenment under the moral and economic philosophy of Smith sharpened the reason and creativity of human beings to participate in an economic system for mutual gain. Smith saw humans as creatures driven by passions and at the same time self-regulated by their ability to reason and no less important by their capacity for sympathy (Heilbroner, 2020). Smith argued on the impartial nature of human beings because of the duality of their actions – on the one hand, all the individuals inherently work towards preserving their self-interest and on the other, they also diplay sympathy about the others pitfalls. Both Kant’s and Smith’s ideas had a great impact on Karl Marx; culminating in the dichotomy of opposite realities taking a decisive turn in Marxist philosophy.

Hegelian philosophy, promotion of history and Marxian materialism

With a sense of scepticism, Karl Marx examined the role of Hegelian philosophy in determining the evolution of the human social order and the inherent contradiction that would shape their morality. Methodologically, Hegelian dialectics was the precursor to the Marxian interpretation of history. Hegel proclaimed the crucial role of human consciousness for the alteration of historical epochs. Hegel was convinced that history is essentially the evolutionary and progressive narrative of a collective human consciousness, this mysterious entity he called spirit (Robinson & Groves, 2006). Karl Marx adopted the Hegelian anticipation on the continuous conflicts between two existing realities and also the outcomes of a more progressive situation. But the dialectical method has been used with a drastic modification by Karl Marx For himself, the consciousness had no role to play during the passage of historical epochs, so the starting point of Marxian morality lies with the fact that historical evolutions have occurred with a material condition rather than with dominant ideas. Marx observed that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness” (Marx, 1977). Origin of the material tendency made its impact on social existence. Marx, in particular, criticized all the philosophical arguments for failing to improve the condition of continuous exploitation of the masses Marx claimed that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, 1888). Karl Marx didn’t define history from a philosophical standpoint but rather based on the productive relations of the past. For instance, he categorically arranged the entire human history and its class-based antagonism. In a feudal society, the standard of existence implies its stake in material productivity and the productive relation between the landlords and serfs. Likewise, Marx revealed all the historical phases such as slavery, feudal and capitalist societies based on the dominant productive principles – the owner of the production and workers for whom the entire production would be feasible.

Dominant morality and Capitalism

Unlike Kant and Smith, Marx tried to investigate the process of domination and its implications for constructing morality. Paradoxically, the most systematically productive condition came with the rise of industries and factory workers. Marx identified the destructive nature of capitalism and the erosion of human potential. Throughout the evolution of this theory, Marx placed material consciousness as the foundation (substructure) that creates all the institutional apparatus like Politics, Law and Legislature (superstructure).

Marxist temperament highlights the rise of the economically sound dominant class and contrasts that with the predicament of the exploited classes whose existence were characterized by their forceful submission to human labour. Marx believed that the morality of an individual is always determined by economic consciousness such as – What to produce? How to produce? Compared to other economic systems, Capitalism replaced all small -scale production units and man-made services with a large amount of capital investment and accumulation. Capitalists, as Marx described, ruined the social system with the application of a profit-oriented economy where the labourers had to sell themselves and also their natural potential for the sake of survival.

Without appropriate wages and living conditions, the social and economical development of workers as morally desirable vanished from the picture because of a presumption that their labour was not for their existence but to further the growth of capitalism. Capitalism is not natural, and the artificial limits imposed on human development by our current political and social environment prevent the vast majority of human beings from realizing their potential (Gasper). Marx detached religion from social relations and societal behaviour by reiterating the moral degradation of individuals in a capitalist order, therefore, considering the prevalent tensions among the religious creeds as opium in the hand of the dominant class to legitimise their standard(s) of morality.

End of Capitalism: The Way to Marxian Morality

Within a competitive environment, the common man had nothing to preserve except his empty stomach. Deadly capitalism forced his destructible body to build an indestructible castle of capitalism that alienated him from his production, goods, social life and malnourished his family members. Marx followed a unique path to arrive at a more judicious appropriation of human labour, for such a hostile working environment had to prompt a revolt against the existing capitalist system. Capitalists extracted for themselves huge shares out of any product as a surplus, though the extractions of labour itself was a crime against the natural order. For establishing a more humane social order, Marx referred to historical struggles between rival classes, underlining the most ardent struggle would be seen in a capitalist society. Laying the foundation for revolution, Marx observed that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” (Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto, 2014). The bloody revolution would alter the capitalist mode of production because the working class would be more united and the internal contradictions of capitalism, would lead to its destruction. Overproduction, low wages and poor living conditions were the problems of capitalism that forced all the members of the working-class to organize themselves to resist this “demon” of Humanity leading to the famous lines of Communist Manifesto “Working men of all countries, Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!” (Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto, 2014) becoming a slogan after a revolution, the means of production would be transferred to the hand of the proletariat and concerns regarding the distribution of private property would be addressed and met ith instantly in what will become known as the “Dictatorship of the proletariat”. Marx designed a communist society where the means of production would be placed under a common ownership and distribution. In his book, Critique of The Gotha Programme the principle of distribution – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Marx, Critique of The Gotha Programme, 1891), Marx focuses on the collective morality of human beings. Having understood the menace of capitalism, Marx had tried to give prominence to the natural potential of an individual without any external pressure or interference. A human morality which stands beyond class antagonism and above any trace of it becomes possible only at a stage when society has not only overcome class antagonism but has also forsaken it in every practical aspect (Gasper). Karl Marx was the first philosopher to uncover the role of social conditions in an economic system and how these economic systems reflect the morality of the people perpetuating them. Communism, in its final form, tries to improve a human beings’s natural potential and fosters a proper understanding of its usage for human emancipation.


A revolutionary and an ardent Marxist intellectual, Vladimir Lenin redefined the expansionist tendencies of capitalism in his celebrated work, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. His analysis touched transnational boundaries where capitalism had entered through the process of colonization and empires. In an era of improved digitalisation and the rise of multinational companies, a resurgence and growth of capitalism and its destructive attributes have been witnessed from the Great Depression of 1929 to the economic crisis of 2008. One might be amazed at how it could have been possible for Karl Marx to imagine a natural progression of human history. Unfortunately, he failed to acknowledge that due to the changing dynamics of social relations in the modern world, the Marxist revolution would fail to gain momentum in developed countries.

Despite sharp criticisms, the relevance of Marxian morality still has a great influence in our globalized economy, Cooperation and coordination have been changing our consciousness because of a dominant of morality at work, at a global scale. The global economy has been trying to assimilate national economies, encouraging a cosmopolitan economic order. Eventually, a complex international economy will formulate moral arguments for a futuristic society optimistic about increased interdependence. Unsurprisingly, Mature Americans have been increasingly showing their deep dissatisfaction for democratic procedures, elections and populism.

Understandably and naturally, therefore, the economic construction of human morality, as viewed through the Marxian lens, promotes a generous enthusiasm to solve the perennially bugging question – what is the right thing to do?


  1. Gasper, P. (n.d.). Marxism, Morality, and human nature. Retrieved from International Socialist

  2. Heilbroner, R. L. (2020, December 23). Adam Smith Scottish Philosopher. Retrieved from Britannica: 

  3. Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork of The Metaphysics of Morals. 

  4. Marx, K. (1888). Theses on Feuerbach. 

  5. Marx, K. (1891). Critique of The Gotha Programme. 

  6. Marx, K. (1977). A Contribution to THe Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers. 

  7. Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2014). Communist Manifesto. New Delhi: Grapevine India. 

  8. Robinson, D., & Groves, J. (2006). Introducing Political Philosophy. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd. 

  9. Smith, A. (1776). Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations. 

  10. Vannatta, S. (2014). Enlightenment Moral Theory and British Conservatism. in: Conservatism and Pragmatism. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved from Springer. 

About Subrat Kumar Ratha

Subrat Kumar Ratha is a MPhil student of Political Science at the Department of Politics at the department of Political Science, Utkal University, Odisha. Hailing from the Indian State of Odisha, his areas of interest include political philosophy and political theory. Stimulated by Ideological debates, Mr Ratha is a "self-claimed" defender of Karl Marx and what he represents.

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