Evan Burger has written up a short piece for Jacobin entitled “Toward a selfish Left.” He summarizes his argument as follows: “The Left doesn’t need a renewed emphasis on morality; instead, we must reclaim the concept of self-interest.” While the rest of the article is rather glib — going so far as to naturalize self-interest at one point (the author urges us to be mindful of “humanity’s inherently self-interested nature”) — its basic point regarding the subpolitical character of most ethical injunctions is sound.
To be sure, “Marxists” and leftists of all stripes have resorted to the most maudlin moralizations in recent decades, hoping to stir the masses from their inertia by appealing to their guilty conscience. Attentive readers of Marx will remember, however, that this has nothing to do with the critical position he advocated for communists:
Communism is quite incomprehensible to [the anarchist and individualist Max Stirner] because the communists do not oppose egoism to selflessness or selflessness to egoism, nor do they express this contradiction theoretically either in its sentimental or in its high-flown ideological form; they rather demonstrate its material source, with which it disappears of itself. The communists do not preach morality at all, as Stirner does so extensively. They do not put to people the moral demand: love one another, do not be egoists, etc.; on the contrary, they are very well aware that egoism, just as much as selflessness, is in definite circumstances a necessary form of the self-assertion of individuals. Hence, the communists by no means want…to do away with the ‘private individual’ for the sake of the ‘general,’ selfless man.
Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845)
So much for that “hive mind” collectivism libertarians always erroneously ascribe to Marxism and Marx. The freedom of each is a prerequisite for the freedom of all. Bourgeois subjectivity, though it for the first time expresses a widespread sense of individuality (mirroring the shift away from the family toward the individual as the basic productive unit of society), is eventually constrained by the onset of the capitalist mode of production.
This was precisely the dynamic Max Horkheimer picked up on in his excellent 1945 essay from The Eclipse of Reason on “The rise and decline of the individual.” In this work, Horkheimer contended that
One of the most important attributes of individuality, that of spontaneous action, which began to decline in capitalism as a result of the partial elimination of competition, played an integral part in socialist theory. But today the spontaneity of the working class has been impaired by the general dissolution of individuality. Labor is increasingly divorced from critical theories as they were formulated by the great political and social thinkers of the nineteenth century.
Max Horkheimer, “The Rise and
Decline of the Individual” (1945)
Indeed, here Horkheimer tacitly leans not only the theory of proletarian spontaneity developed by Luxemburg in The Mass Strike (1908), but also on Lenin’s critique of competition as it exists in stunted form within the capitalist social formation. “Far from extinguishing competition, socialism, on the contrary, for the first time creates the opportunity for employing it on a really wide and on a really mass scale,” wrote Lenin toward the close of 1917, “for actually drawing the majority of working people into a field of labor in which they can display their abilities, develop the capacities, and reveal those talents, so abundant among the people whom capitalism crushed, suppressed, and strangled in thousands and millions.”
Here, as with most things Lenin wrote about, the most pressing question was one of organization. Competition, much like individualism or egoism, was never in doubt for Marx, Lenin, or the thinkers of the Frankfurt School. Certainly some of the extrapolations based on these principles, which exalted individuality or competitiveness as part of “human nature” (and even considered them the prime movers in any rational society), were ideological. But the socialism articulated by Marx and his greatest followers was hardly an “abstract negation” of all that exists under bourgeois society.
Marxism proposes a sublation or “determinate negation” of capitalist society — that is, its simultaneous negation and realization — by harnessing its productive forces and pushing the social dynamics it heralded beyond its own self-imposed limits. Communism is the riddle of history solved, the solution to the modern dilemma of social versus individual freedom. Selfishness and competition, decried so often by activists and protestors, are quite often more progressive than the alternatives offered up by moralists on the so-called “Left.”