For the hell of it

Terry Eagleton

  • In Praise of Meekness: Essays on Ethics and Politics by Norberto Bobbio, translated by Teresa Chataway
    Polity, 186 pp, £50.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 7456 2309 3

The political Left has always had trouble with ethics, in theory as well as in practice. The practical problems hardly need recounting. It was one of the great tragedies of the 20th century that socialism proved least possible where it was most necessary. A vision of human emancipation which presupposed for its success all the precious fruits of modernity – material wealth, liberal traditions, a flourishing civic society, an educated populace – became instead the guiding light by which wretchedly impoverished nations bereft of such benefits sought to throw off their chains. Shunned by those well-heeled nations who might have smoothed their path to freedom, they marched their people into modernity at gunpoint, with criminal consequences. One would not describe Fascism as tragic, whatever the tragic destruction to which it gave birth. But Stalinism was tragedy of a classical kind, as the noble intentions of socialism were deflected into their opposites in that fatal inversion which Aristotle calls peripeteia.

The theoretical problems were less catastrophic, though just as severe. Marx, for example, could never decide whether ethics was what he was up to in his own work, or a bourgeois mystification implacably opposed to it. If he sometimes appeals to notions of justice, denouncing the wage-relation as ‘robbery’, he more often dismisses moral ideas as ideological baggage, superstructural fictions by which our rulers aim to sweeten their sovereignty. There would be no need for justice in a Communist society, since the very concept implies a scarcity which would have been surpassed. Morality, rather as for Nietzsche, belongs to prehistory; it is a child of the realm of necessity, and there will be no place for it in the kingdom of freedom.

Marx’s contempt for morality is especially ironic, since he himself was a moralist in the most classical sense of the term. As Norman Geras has remarked, Marx believed in moral notions, but he did not know that he did. He did not know it because he wrongly identified morality with bourgeois moralism, which he quite rightly rejected. He was, in short, too respectful of his opponents’ formulations, rather as some unwary leftists today disown ‘tradition’ because they are thinking of the Changing of the Guard rather than the Chartists. Moralism is the belief that there exists a realm of specifically moral questions, but as Aristotle understood, there is no autonomously ‘moral’ issue which can be abstracted from the complex institutional life of the polis. It is only the modern age which has come up with this alienated view, just as it holds that there is something called the aesthetic which is not only independent of the social, but more or less its antithesis. Aristotle observes at the beginning of his Ethics that there is a science which deals with the supreme good, and then tells us – surprisingly, given the title of his book – that its name is politics.

Marx was a closet Aristotelian, and a traditional moralist just because he set questions of justice, equality and the like in their social and historical contexts. If this made it fatally easy for him to relativise them away, it also saved him from the Modernist error of those for whom adultery is a moral affair but public ownership a political one, for whom ethics is what you do in bed, and politics or economics what you do when you get out of bed. But Marx is an Aristotelian also because he sees ethics in terms of virtues rather than obligations. Like Aristotle, he recognises that the good life is all about enjoying yourself, that the end of human life is happiness or well-being, and that this involves a many-sided flourishing, realising your historically-bred powers and capacities to the full. It is this which class-society forestalls, and what it forestalls it with, among other weapons, is morality. Freud would later identify moral ideology, or the superego, as a kind of sickness, a frenzied sadistic idealism which drives us to self-destruction in the name of righteousness.

What Marx has done here, without appearing to be aware of it, is to shift the whole question of ethics from the ‘superstructure’ to the ‘base’. It is not, as he seems to think, that he has got rid of ethics, simply relocated them without noticing the fact. For the material ‘base’ of society includes not just the forces and relations of production, but human productive powers; and the good life for Marx lies in their perpetual self-realising and unfolding. This, for him, would include such activities as tasting a peach or listening to a concerto; his idea of production, far from being too crabbedly economistic, is actually rather too capacious for comfort. The ethical life then consists in allowing these creative powers to break through whatever ‘superstructure’ is currently suppressing them, which includes moral ideology. In this, too, Marx is at one with his compatriot Friedrich Nietzsche, and indeed with William Blake.

Such an ethics is not, needless to say, without its difficulties. As a curious cross-breed of Aristotle and Romantic humanism, it tends to assume that human powers become morbid only by virtue of being repressed. It is not clear that this is the case with the urge to boil infants alive. If Marx believes with an off-the-wall libertarian like D.H. Lawrence that all our powers should be realised just because they are ours, then he is guilty of a naive naturalism; but if he does not hold such a disreputable view, then he has to name some criteria by which we select suitable candidates for self-realisation from among our various capacities, and this is hard to do once you have thrown out transcendent norms.

In his early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, he tries to circumvent the so-called naturalistic fallacy with such concepts as ‘species being’, which hover indeterminately between fact and value. He wants to work his way up from our condition as a material species to questions of quality and value. This, once more, is a thoroughly traditional moral project, which Thomas Aquinas would have had no trouble in recognising. Moralism and idealism must be refuted, and the question of what we ought to do must somehow be anchored in the way it is with us. But the spectre of reductionism is not simple to exorcise, and it is easier to derive moral norms from the facts of human nature if you have already smuggled a few of them into your description of that nature in the first place.

Some later 19th-century Marxism turned from this ambitious moral anthropology, looking instead to Kant for moral guidance. Positivist forms of historical materialism might proclaim that socialism was inevitable, but they could not guarantee that it was desirable. Indeed, the historically inevitable might always turn out to be thoroughly unpleasant. Such Marxism could make no room for questions of value, and so, in the worst of all worlds, tacked an idealist morality onto its mechanical materialism. It was not until the Marxist rediscovery of Hegel, most notably with the writings of Georg Lukács, that this sterile coupling could be set aside. It has cropped up again in our own time in the incongruous Kantian turn of some post-structuralist thought, which is just as incapable as mechanistic Marxism of plucking moral norms from its view of the world. But whereas the problem for mechanistic Marxism was that its view of the world excluded value from the outset, the problem for post-structuralism is that it has no view of the world. For this vein of thought, you cannot get from the way the world is to what we ought to do, since the world is no particular way at all. For the pragmatist, determining the world as being a certain way is the result of what you want or ought to do, not the reason for it.

Kantian morality, with its universal obligations and imperatives, might seem quite incompatible with the ‘virtue’ morality of an Aristotle or Marx. Alasdair MacIntyre and Bernard Williams have both famously contrasted the two lineages, and for rather different reasons shown Kantian morality the door. The Italian political philosopher Norberto Bobbio is somewhat more prudent. In these essays on ethics and politics, he regards the two doctrines as different rather than opposed. This is the case with Marx, though Bobbio does not go on to spell out how. Marx is right to hold, pace the Kantians, that morality is about happiness, not primarily about duty or prescription; but he is also right contra the virtue moralists and Romantic humanists to insist that the creation of the good life for all is bound to involve such otherwise unpalatable phenomena. You cannot build socialism without them, just as you cannot build it without self-sacrifice.

MacIntyre has bluntly dismissed such self-sacrifice as a ‘vice’, and in one sense it is; it is certainly not an exemplary way to live, as feminists do not need to be reminded. For Marx, however, this ‘vice’ is tragically necessary if the good life is to be secured all round. This would not be the case were history not as direly oppressive as it is. Unhappy the land in need of martyrs, or indeed in need of radicals. Given that history has been so atrocious, however, its transforming will inevitably mean some people having to abnegate at least part of their own fulfilment for the sake of others. Marx himself was one such example; and this is why he has his Kantian as well as his Aristotelian side.

The self-disciplined, self-sacrificial revolutionary is thus the last person to furnish us with an image of an emancipated future. He or she is not a sign of that future, but of how much it takes to achieve it. As a poem by Bertolt Brecht comments: ‘Oh we who tried to lay the ground for friendship/ Could not ourselves be friendly.’ Similarly, the monk or religious celibate is no image of heaven, just a dramatic signifier of how much, in an unjust world, will have to be jettisoned to achieve it. All such renunciation is a kind of negative utopia. Bobbio, who comes from the land of Machiavelli, has much of interest to say in this slim volume of the doctrine that the end justifies the means; but the creative disjunction between them in Bobbio’s account is rather different from how it is set out in The Prince. Ascesis, prohibition, prescription, self-repression can be ‘bad’ means to a good end – ‘bad’ in the sense that unless they contribute to that end, they cannot be commended as ways of life in themselves. But history, alas, has seen to it that they are in fact essential to that goal, and it is this that the laid-back pragmatists and Post-Modernists fail to see. For the less sophisticated among them, all prohibitions are instances of a malevolent Law, as though being forbidden to set fire to a cat was a wanton restriction of one’s self-fulfilment.

Bobbio, whom Perry Anderson has called ‘the moral conscience of the Italian political order’, has been a remarkably influential figure in practical politics. A leading luminary of the political wing of the Italian Resistance, twice imprisoned by Mussolini, he became after the war a sympathetic yet stringent critic of the Italian Communist Party. His critique of the Party laid the ground for the Eurocommunism to which it was to turn in the early 1970s, while a few years later he collaborated in drafting the constitution of the Italian Socialist Party. Today, still active at the age of 91, he is an Italian life senator, an emeritus professor, and a figure of sage-like, oracular status.

The Resistance had impelled Bobbio from liberalism to socialism, twinned forces in the struggle against Fascism, and the relation between the two creeds was to form a major theme of his philosophy. Convinced that socialism is liberalism’s natural completion, he has nevertheless spoken up for what he calls ‘the value of enquiry, the ferment of doubt, a willingness to dialogue, a spirit of criticism, moderation of judgment, philological scruple, a sense of the complexity of things’. To adapt the slogan of his most celebrated Marxist compatriot, it is a case of socialism of the intellect, liberalism of the heart. These sometimes rather slight pieces on democracy, prejudice, racism, truth, tolerance and allied topics betray the marks of old age, despite their absurdly inflated hardback price. But they also have some sharp insights to offer into the distinction between tolerance and scepticism, the sources of human prejudice and the relations between ethics and politics. Since they also sing the praises of meekness as a political virtue, they are unlikely to prove Peter Mandelson’s favourite reading.

Bobbio distinguishes four kinds of relation between ethics and politics. There are two brands of monism which respectively reduce ethics to politics (Hobbes) and politics to ethics (Erasmus, Kant); a more flexible form of monism which holds that politics should be ethical but with certain exemptions; and a full-blooded dualism for which the political constitutes its own autonomous domain distinct from the ethical (Machiavelli). For the latter current of thought, ethical actions have an intrinsic value, whereas political actions have an instrumental one. What dismantles this opposition, though Bobbio does not argue the case here, is the very phenomenon which has absorbed his attention over a lifetime: democracy. What divides Left and Right on this score is the question of whether democracy has an intrinsic or a purely instrumental value. For much conservative thought, democracy may have its uses, but it is hardly a good in itself. Better for a single sovereign to reach the right decision than for a sovereign people to botch the business. And though democracy may thrive in English soil, it may well not suit the Portuguese. For the Left, democracy has both intrinsic and instrumental merit: it is a way of arriving at sound judgments by involving as many arbiters as possible, but the self-determination it involves is also a moral good. Indeed, it remains so even when the decisions in question are disastrous. For the Left, human beings may abuse their freedom, but they are not wholly human without it; for the Right, what matters by and large is not that we decide but what we decide.

One essay in this volume, ‘The Gods that Failed’, is devoted to the problem of evil. Unlike some rather more coy radicals, Bobbio is properly unafraid to pronounce the word, demanded as it is by the monstrosities of the century through which he lived almost from one end to the other. One needs some such language to distinguish the Final Solution from the Great Train Robbery, and it need carry no metaphysical implications. But Bobbio misses an opportunity here to relate the question of evil to his opposition between the intrinsic and the instrumental. The purges of Stalin and Mao, however monstrous, were done with a purpose; the Holocaust, by contrast, represents that more puzzling, elusive form of evil which seems fundamentally without motive. It had, to be sure, pragmatic aspects; but it is hard not to agree with Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s claim that the most difficult truth of all about it is its meaninglessness. Primo Levi points out that there was simply no point in subjecting one’s victims to cruelty and humiliation, dragging them on a senseless journey across Europe, when you were going to exterminate them anyway. Why not just kill them in their beds? If you say that the reason for the slaughter was the Nazi desire for racial purity, this simply pushes the question back a stage: why did they desire that? There is no rational motive for such a wish, as there may be for desiring political freedom or a more buoyant economy.

In traditional mythology, the devil is portrayed as delighting in destruction for its own sake. Indeed, it is the only way that he can ease his intolerable pain. The damned are in torment, yet exult in their wickedness. This kind of motiveless, Iago-like malignancy seems to be an end in itself, and so joins a rather select class of objects which includes God and art. It has the baffling quality of things which are brutely themselves. It comes as no surprise that the devil was once an angel, since goodness is similarly non-functional. In a world as shabby as this, goodness doesn’t get you anywhere, which is why, as Henry James knew, it is as gloriously pointless as the aesthetic. In the end, one has to be virtuous just for the hell of it. The demonic are those who sense some frightful non-being at the root of their identity, and who find this sublime chaos embodied in a particular figure, whether Jew, woman, homosexual or foreigner. Exterminating this otherness then becomes the only way of convincing yourself that you exist. Only in the obscene enjoyment of dismembering others can you plug the gap in your own being, warding off the threat of non-being by creating even more of the stuff around you.

So the destruction does, after all, have a purpose: it is done to lend you an identity. But since there is no particular reason for wanting that, and since the pleasure one reaps from annihilating others is an end in itself, it can also be seen as purely self-sustaining. The damned cannot relinquish their torment because it is bound up with their jouissance, cannot escape the brutal sadism of the Law because this is just what they desire. And this is why they are in despair. But since we all desire the cruelty of the Law, at least if Freud is to be credited, evil of this kind is at once gratifyingly rare and exceedingly commonplace. It has, however, some formidable opponents, and they are listed in Bobbio’s title essay as humility, modesty, meekness and other such virtues – the alternative ethics, so he argues, of those ‘who die without leaving any other trace of their presence on this earth than a cross in a cemetery bearing their name and a date’.