In all probability most readers of Socialist Worker will not have heard of Alasdair MacIntyre. Today, he is best known in academia as the author of one of the most important recent books on moral theory—After Virtue.
However, in the late 1950s and early 1960s MacIntyre was an active revolutionary socialist, whose reputation was made in a blistering defence and deepening of Edward Thompson’s socialist humanism.
As we noted in last week's column, Thompson was part of a new left that emerged in the 1950s. He opened up a debate on socialist humanism, arguing against the Stalinist deadening of Marxism. Instead, claimed Thompson, real human agency should be at the centre of Marxist theory.
Others in the new left replied that Thompson’s belief that the Eastern Bloc countries were socialist, even in a deformed sense, undermined this humanism.
Moreover, it was claimed that mechanical interpretations of Marx’s theory, which Thompson argued had helped spawn Stalinism, suggested that Marxism as a whole was deeply flawed.
MacIntyre’s contribution to this debate, which Thompson later said was of the “first importance”, sought to develop Thompson’s ideas in a direction which would immunise them against these attacks on Marxism.
The problem that MacIntyre addressed was this—on what basis can socialists morally condemn both capitalism and Stalinism?
Modern moral theory offers two powerful approaches to answering a question of this type.
On the one hand, there are versions of what is known as consequentialism, which says that actions are judged not by the intentions of the actors but by their consequences.
While looking at the consequences of actions is crucial to a credible moral theory, this approach is inadequate.
It involves separating means and ends, which can act to legitimise present inhumanity in the name of some future nirvana.
Stalinists sought to justify the Soviet regime in this way, just as liberals sought to justify capitalism.
On the other hand, the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant attempted to develop a rational and universal approach to morality, which focused on the intentions of individual actors.
While looking at intentions in this way must obviously play a role in moral theory, Kant’s approach founders on another problem. In different societies people have rationally defended different conceptions of right and wrong.
MacIntyre aimed to outline a moral theory that avoided the problems associated with both Kantianism and consequentialism.
From the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle he took the suggestion that morality must be rooted in human needs and desires, but from Marx he took the suggestion that, while there are some universal aspects of human nature, human nature was also historical.
He therefore aimed to show that conceptions of right and wrong have a history, and that the history of ethics is rooted through class struggles in social history.
For instance, while the idea of the rights of citizens emerged in the epoch of the bourgeois revolutions and is thus a product of history, once it did emerge it could act as a universal claim against which existing societies could be judged.
Similarly, MacIntyre argued that the forms of cooperative humanity that became a possibility with the emergence of the modern working class, and have been realised in periods of workers’ struggle, can act as a vantage point from which to examine other societies.
This provides an alternative basis to the liberal image of atomised individuality, from which both Western capitalism and Russian state capitalism could be condemned.
By “historicising” ethics in this way, MacIntyre showed that socialist humanism could evolve into a critique of both Stalinism and capitalism, thus avoiding the weaknesses associated with Thompson’s model.
MacIntyre also showed the enormous gulf between Lenin and Stalin.
He argued that the new left should not confuse their break with the Stalinist caricature of Leninism with a break with Lenin’s politics.
MacIntyre’s defence of socialist humanism thus led in the direction of a rescue of authentic Marxism from Stalinism.