Morality in Ceika’s Hammer

Much of the ambiguity in Marx’s self-professed ‘rejection of morality’ stems from his consistent, and seemingly contradictory employment of ethically charged language. Twilight O’Hara explores why.



While I do have points of agreement and disagreement with Jonas Ceika’s How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle, I wish to avoid making either the center of my discussion. I believe his is a work that deserves to be spared the treatment of the standard review cycle. A book’s worth cannot be judged by how agreeable it is to one’s personal theoretical disposition, but rather by how much it has to teach us, to advance our understanding beyond where we began. Measured by this criterion, I believe this book stands tall.

Written in an aphoristic style, it’s far too unwieldy to succinctly summarize. With that in mind, I will single out only one of a number of its topics for discussion. This is not because forays into other subjects are without value, but it is this topic that had the most to teach me. The subject is the Nietzschean critique of morality and how it relates to Marx’s famous, and infamously ambiguous, rejection of morality.

This essay presupposes some knowledge of Marx’s critique of morality and is by no means an exhaustive discussion of the topic. Many relevant and even obvious questions will not be addressed, let alone answered. A 2500 word essay cannot deal comprehensively with any subject, especially not one so storied as moral philosophy. For those interested in having these questions addressed, I will make the rather obvious suggestion to purchase Jonas’s book when it comes out and see what he has to say on the matter.

What is Morality?

Much of the ambiguity in Marx’s self-professed ‘rejection of morality’ stems from his consistent, and seemingly contradictory employment of ethically charged language. Notably, Marx’s theory of exploitation, despite giving the notion different content, takes its name from a theory of Proudhon’s. In its original form, this theory was moralistic, while Marx’s version of it claims not to be. The name of the theory, however, would seem to suggest otherwise. This is one example that is baked into the fundamental language of the mature Marx, but ethical charges and declarations litter Marx’s work at all periods of his life.

This seeming contradiction has been perceived by some to be so inexplicable that the only solution to it is to conclude that Marx was simply incoherent. Following the lead of G. A. Cohen, the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Karl Marx states: “Marx believed that capitalism was unjust, but did not believe that he believed it was unjust.” Ceika rejects this ‘solution’ completely.

Instead, he turns to the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche as a lens through which we may reinterpret Marx’s thoughts on morality. By examining the content of Marx’s rejection of morality, the grounds on which he did so, Ceika concludes that Marx’s understanding of morality is narrow, rather than broad, and can be usefully separated from what he simply terms ‘ethics’. Morality is defined by five key traits, Ceika writes:

1) that it is universal, equally applicable to all, 2) that its obligations are unconditional, 3) that it is ahistorical, valid for all times and places, 4) that we have moral responsibility to follow it, and should feel guilt or remorse if we don’t, and 5) that in accordance to it, our actions can be judged as “good” or “evil” in absolute terms.

Jonas Ceika

Ethics, by contrast, claims none of these things. Uncoincidentally, this understanding of morality is largely derived from the Christian tradition, a subject of which Marx and Nietzsche were both famously deeply critical. Indeed, when he did engage directly with schools of moral thought, Marx’s ire was overwhelmingly drawn to the Christian derived Kantian and Utilitarian doctrines.

Ethics, contra morality, claims no right to eternal or universal validity. Quite the opposite, it proudly proclaims itself the product of specific social scenarios and situations, a product of concrete human experiences rather than of God’s righteousness. Ethics arises from the necessary limitations of corporeal life and makes no pretenses to being able to transcend them. Ethics is not merely a product of these experiences, but a reflection of the conflicts contained within: it is therefore, in modern society, a product of class.

Capital-M Morality is not separate from ethics, but rather is that form of it which claims to be either divine or abstractly rational, à la Kant. By denying its roots in historically determinante circumstances and from necessarily limited perspectives within those circumstances, capital-M Morality overwhelmingly tends to be the ethical wing of power, since those in power wish to deny their own historically determinate origins and obscure the lack of any ultimate justification for their domination.

Nietzsche’s Contributions and the Critique of Morality

These ideas, worked out to a greater or lesser extent, are all present in the work of Marx, and as such it’s not yet clear why we ought to turn to Nietzsche to furnish our understanding of morality as Marxists. Indeed, as presented so far, there’s little reason not to grant the working-class the right to claim their ethical perspective as an ultimate morality, since Marx understood the working-class to be the ‘universal-class’, that class whose interests ultimately express the universal interests of humanity at large. It is important to note, however, that neither Marx nor Engels do grant the working-class this right, but it is unclear on their own terms why this is the case; it is on this point that Nietzsche’s work can bring clarity.

Foremost, the issue with Marx’s critique of morality is that it is woefully abstract. Marx was willing to engage with specific ethical schools from time to time and was concrete in these engagements. However, his general rejection of morality is tied up with his general critique of utopian socialism, a critique in which the role of morality is simply one factor among many.

Primarily, Marx’s critique of morality in connection to utopian socialism is that the condemnation of society on the basis of right or wrong is overwhelmingly bound-up with the concepts of the current society. Most notably, Marx rightly mocked the phrase “property is theft” because the concept of theft only makes sense within the context of a society where property rights are respected. A critique cannot surpass its own shackles.

This critique is well and good, but it’s not Nietzsche’s argument, or rather it is not an exhaustive exposition of the various arguments he made. Nietzsche makes this essential point in his engagement with Herr Duhring, parallelling the arguments made by Engels in his satirically titled Herr Duhring’s Revolution in Science, evidencing Ceika’s point of commonalities between the thinkers. As the title of that work suggests, however, Engels’s point is to engage with Duhring’s system of thought, whereas Nietzsche engaged with morality as a historical phenomenon on the scale of Western society as a whole, and thus penetrated far deeper into this particular subject, as was befitting the scope of his study.

For Nietzsche, utopian socialism can be best understood as an expression of political impotence, as the morality on which it is based is an expression of impotence. This is not dissimilar to Marx’s argument, whereby utopian socialism arose in response to capitalism’s dehumanizing horrors in lieu of the existence of a proper revolutionary subject, the proletariat, to challenge that dehumanization. What is different is that Nietzsche’s analysis opens up the possibility to understand utopianism as a recurring phenomenon, rather than an occurrence whose time has come to pass, as was tacitly suggested in much of Marx’s writings. Or, rather, that utopian socialism, while a historical phenomenon relegated to times gone by, is rooted in a mode of thinking and a perspective on class that will not, cannot, simply fade away with the emergence of the working-class and its theoretical voice in Marxism.

In light of the 20th century experience, this is an understanding crucial to making sense of the binds Marxist philosophy has found itself in. As is well acknowledged among various critical strands of Marxism, the last decades have been a process of recovering Marx’s radicalism from the philosophical confines of the legacy of the Second International: this has often been thought to mean a recovery of an understanding of generalized commodity production, the refusal to engage in parliamentary politics and so on. While these are all key symptoms of having abandoned Marx’s radical philosophy, none of this addresses the core of the issue: Ceika, through Nietzsche, invites us to not only re-examine our premises in light of Marx’s authentic Marxism, but to interrogate them in ways that account for philosophical developments after Marx’s own time.

A Marxism that still functionally views the capital circuit as evil, capitalists and their servants as sinners, and the struggle of socialism as a crusade is still a socialism that owes more to the worst forms of Christianity rather than to Marx. Indeed, as Ceika himself notes, Nietzsche’s critique of religion never had to do with a particular hatred of Christianity itself but rather the mode of metaphysical thinking that it represented, a mode of thinking that ‘thinkers’ such as the New Atheists have made abundantly clear can preserve itself and even thrive in a perfectly secular form.

Ceika is not the first Marxist to compare modern leftism to Christianity, nor is he the first to frame this comparison through the lens of Nietzsche: Mark Fisher famously beat him on both fronts, and ultra-leftists have been making arguments along these lines since at least the 1970s. However, what Ceika is the first to do, is make this argument more than a functionally uncritical defense of limp social democracy, as in the first case, or to extend the argument past simple behavioral condemnation in the latter. Ceika makes this argument with a keen eye to how this legacy undermines liberation. With movements for Black liberation and trans liberation gripping much of the anglosphere in recent times, it’s a consideration that is not only abstractly considerate but concretely practical too.

What Constitutes a Revolutionary Ethics?

That capital-M Morality is an impediment to revolutionary struggle is a position made abundantly clear by Marx, and it’s an argument he laid out repeatedly. That ethics is compatible with revolutionary struggle and, as suggested by the above paragraph, an indispensable component of it can be inferred from Marx and is indeed stated explicitly, albeit somewhat crudely, in Engels’s Anti-Duhring. What its actual use is, its utility, is left unclear. Can there exist an ethic that is not merely compatible with revolutionary struggle, but is in fact a boon to it by way of illuminating an emancipatory self-conception? Ceika thinks yes, and so do I.

For him, the key lies in Nietzsche’s idea of the Ubermensch as ‘value-creator’. To be quaint, the societal form of value-production creates not only monetary value but moral values as well, and so a society of free association must not only be free of the constraints of the law of value but those producers must themselves be free of values imposed by fetishized forms of social organization. Humanity must not only produce its own goods freely, but its own ethical concerns. It is this that Engels calls a “truly human form of morality,” but Nietzsche goes much further in outlining what this may mean in practice.

In contrast to the common assumption and even common interpretation, Nietzsche did not see the emergence of the ubermensch as the result of individual action, but rather of a social-epochal rupture. The ubermensch is not a person, per se, but rather an emerging order of people that Nietzsche’s writings merely heralded. Nietzsche, by his own admission, was no ubermensch, for becoming the ubermensch is not so simple as making the choice to become one. In the absence of a divine presence, men are free to divinize themselves, but this new divine order is destined to be polytheistic. While the ubermensch is proudly individualistic, Nietzsche, like Hegel before him, was keen to emphasize that man must always actualize his individuality in the context of other men. This accords well with what Marx writes in the Grundrisse, stating that the individual “can individuate itself only in the midst of society.” Value-creation, therefore, is not an isolated incident of discreet, individual actors, but rather exclusively the product of an ubermenschean movement.

Nietzsche was, of course, no radical. Nor did he endorse the class-struggle as a means of mutual self-creation. To an extent, this positions Nietzsche as a sort of ethical utopian, and so it is impossible to adopt these ideas wholesale. While Nietzsche understood the ubermensch to be a historical possibility opened up by the development of society past its need for God, he offered no means by which this historical possibility could be met within the then existing conditions of society except by virtue of voluntary ascendancy to the task of meeting the opportunity. This is, of course, ultimately an absurdity. A historical phenomenon that can only be met by individuals, rather than social agents situated within history, is hardly a historical phenomenon at all. Nietzsche undoubtedly did discover a historical phenomenon, however, and so it cannot be said to be an absurdity in reality, but instead a failure on the part of Nietzsche to fully historicize his philosophy.

It is on this front that Marxism can offer something to Nietzsche: a way to ground the ubermensch in real processes and phenomena. This should not be taken as a condemnation of Nietzsche, however, even if it is a critique. Marx and Engels, critical as they were of the utopians, were appreciative of them insofar as they represented a historical advancement in thought. The utopians were not simply wrong, but necessarily limited by the conditions of the society through which their thought developed. Similarly, Nietzsche, utopian as he may be in this respect, still represents the horizons of what it is possible to think in regards to ethics of the future.

When Nietzsche wrote, the only instance of mature working-class revolt was the Paris Commune. Even if Nietzsche had been a radical of some worth, there would not have been a considerable amount to be drawn from this one instance. Today, we are positioned far better on this matter, and can not only ground Nietzsche’s insights but further develop them in light of the progress that ‘ground’ has made. As our position continues to change in the future, so too will the meaning of a class-struggle based Nietzschean ethics develop.

Concluding Remarks

This is where my primary disagreements with Ceika emerge, or, rather, where I believe my project diverts from his. Ceika does not fully come to this conclusion regarding the historic specificity of our current engagement with Nietzsche or recognize these limitations. He rightfully shows Nietzsche’s value to our position today, but makes no allusions to how we might engage with his thought as our position changes. He cannot predict the future, so I would not ask him to do so, but his presentation of Nietzsche does not seem to meaningfully account for the fact that this engagement will have to change. As such, while not outright ahistorical, Cekia’s account misses a dimension of struggle I would have liked to see him take up. His historicity is defined by stages without what I would consider a proper concern for how human action and thought takes us from one stage to another, or how these things operate within stages of history.

As Marx notes in his second thesis on Feuerbach, “[m]an must prove the truth… in practice.” Practice is not only the primary criterion of truth, however, but its method of development. The ethics of free association will not only emerge through struggle and struggle alone, but it will be created there: it is for this reason that speculation on the matter is, at best, utopian. In human matters, the truth is not simply discovered, but forged by the very agents of investigation in the process of discovery itself. Our speculations can only extend so far as the horizons of that which we have already created.

Even if it fails to acknowledge the nature of its own horizons, however, Ceika’s book is the best exercise of ‘speculation’ in this territory to date. While I have my above mentioned points of departure, these are points of departure I have only been able to come to by way of engaging with his book in the first place. His work is a veritable shotgun blast to stale forms of thinking that are so ingrained in the minds of most Marxists that were he to have exposed their existence alone, this would constitute a significant contribution to the Marxist project of renewal.

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Twilight O’Hara is a psychology student and revolutionary socialist in the United States. She is at work on a book reconstructing Marxism based on philosophical idealism.

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