Marxism, selfishness, and competition

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. Continue reading