The answer is, quite simply, no. I’ll try to provide a bit of an argument for why Lenin shouldn’t be thought of as a utilitarian (or, a consequentialist, which are of course similar). First, though, we need to make a general comment about the methodology employed in calling Lenin a utilitarian. The problem, as I see it, is in separating political actors into neat moral-philosophical categories. There may be a number of very silly statements made about “analytic” philosophy from those who consider themselves working out of a more “Continental” tradition, but there is something to the common claim that analytic philosophy carves up the body of thought and in so doing takes a living body and kills it. Philosophical taxonomy can be heuristically helpful, but when moving towards a fuller account of a thinker and his thought it can run aground disastrously. Calling Lenin a utilitarian is one such instance. There may be specific statements that lend themselves to taking Lenin and Leninism and putting it into the drawer marked ‘Utilitarian’, but this ignores the underlying political logic of his thought. So, yes, Lenin thought of Communism as a mechanism towards overcoming suffering and injustice in the world. Yes, he thought that the revolution would result in the deaths of fewer people than imperialist war. Yes, he made plans and tried to base these are the best empirical information available to him. He “used” things and thought that their flaws and destructive aspects would be outweighed by their positive ones. No one is denying that he was, you know, trying to make things work.
To return to the moral-philosophical categories we could separate Lenin into, let’s hazard a thesis that Lenin is much closer to a virtue-ethicist. While Lenin’s thought is not completely reducible to this position, it provides a more accurate heuristic orientation towards understanding him and has the added benefit of being more faithful to his texts. This isn’t an academic article so I’m not going to provide a host of textual support for this position. This is partly a problem of not having the texts to hand, though interestingly enough a good deal of the ones I’m thinking are provided in Zizek’s collection Revolution at the Gates, but you can see it in The State and Revolution and Imperialism. Still, there are going to be demands for proof, to make this a strong argument. Consider some well known aspects of Lenin’s political action leading up to the successful revolution in 1917. Lenin strongly disagreed with many of the other revolutionary actors that were seemingly the most close to Lenin’s own position. Utilitarian consideration would have demanded that Lenin work with these groups as they would have added to the overall number of the revolutionary forces, but he was hard and stern and demanded instead that they conform fully to the Bolshevik position, because that position was right. It’s the same with his rejection of Capitalism, it wasn’t simply because Capitalism produces more suffering (or some other quasi-quantifiable aspect) than Communism, but because Capitalism creates bad societies. An (at that time) orthodox Marxist would be somewhat closer to a utilitarian position than Lenin (remembering that this should only be a heuristic device) because they would have seen some necessity in allowing Capitalism to progress through the proper stages towards Communism. Lenin, however, rejected this on the basis that the revolution was both possible but right to pursue in Russia, even if the historical conditions as such had not been met.
It is this virtue-ethic aspect of Lenin’s thought, also to be glimpsed in his Jacobian leanings, that leads Zizek to propose a kind of “knight of faith” logic to his political action. As Lenin is not a utilitarian any argument which attempts to show that Zizek misreads Kierkegaard because Lenin is a utilitarian fails. Moreover, it really misses the point, regardless of whether Lenin’s virtues are to be lauded or not.
59 thoughts on “Was Lenin a utilitarian (consequentialist)?”
I might have mentioned this before, but in the conclusion to Macintyre’s Marxism and Christianity he says that the great failure of Marxism in the States was to all of a sudden think of itself in terms of a “is Marxism or is it not, a utilitarian philosophy”, rather than keeping true to the kind of alternative form of life and practice that defined it far close to a virtue ethics, and hence to Aristotle and, of course, Christianity.
I think there is ample in Marx to think that he was advocating a virtue ethics argument, not that communism is better in terms of total utility than capitalism, but that communism is a political organisation for given to human flourishing than capitalism.
The problem for Holbo, it appears to me, is that from a utilitarian perspective, virtue ethics looks a bit like utilitarianism since it aims for the Good Life, but from the opposite way, it is clear that they are quite different.
“I think there is ample in Marx to think that he was advocating a virtue ethics argument, not that communism is better in terms of total utility than capitalism, but that communism is a political organisation for given to human flourishing than capitalism.”
I think this brings out nicely something that Kantians have pointed out about “virtue ethics”: it’s still an ethics oriented around bringing about certain preferred states of affairs. That what is desired is “human flourishing” rather than “maximal total utility” is not to the point: it’s still an ethics which centers around consequences for judging the rightness of actions (or, for virtue ethics, systems of actions, forms of social life). It’s concerned with “trying to make things work” in a way that more Kantian (or Rawlsian, or rights-based) approaches to ethics are not. “Virtue ethics” thus ends up looking a lot like rules-utilitarianism. Whether there’s an independently-intelligible standard by which different sorts of consequences can be judged, external to a given form of social life (the utilitarians say yes, the virtue ethicists say no) is not a question a Kantian cares about. Because they don’t put weight on consequences to begin with — they are not consequentialists, in any sense. The distinction between “quasi-quantifiable” consequences (pleasures and pains, the utilitarian calculus) and brutely qualitative consequences (conduciveness or lack thereof to human flourishing) doesn’t matter, for their purposes. The differences between the positions (which are certainly not few) look like internecine quibbles to those who are sympathetic to thoughts like “individual rights not to be killed trump the common good”, or things like that. Which is the sort of view Holbo opposes to Lenin when he calls him a “utilitarian” — Lenin’s a calculator, even if his calculations involve a great deal of gambling, and even if the scales he uses incline him to think that compromise with non-Bolsheviks would be an error, or that allowing Russia to develop “through the proper stages” would be an inferior option. Any such judgement on Lenin’s part is subordinated to his general goal of the revolutionary establishment of a new form of society.
This is of course not to deny that Holbo simply glosses over much nuance and detail in Lenin-cum-Zizek’s politics. But Holbo is a liberal. So it seems implausible that the details would change his overall appraisal of Lenin-Zizek.
Two things to respond to Daniel. First, I’m not so sure Kantian deontological ethics really escapes that either. After all, aren’t they trying to bring about a preferred state of affairs? Even setting aside the extreme individualism of deontological ethics, within the individual is it not true that there is a sense of ends and thus of consequences? So, for instance, the man who is willing to die rather than steal bread is still thinking in terms of consequences, but only, in this case, they are quasi-spiritual. Secondly, there seems to be a pretty wide gulf between utility, which is largely quantifiable, and human flourishing or forms of life, which are largely qualitative and resist being quantified as such. That seems, to me at least, to be a very important distinction that requires a bit of subtlety, but not so much that an intelligent person can’t see it.
I do agree that this is unlikely to change Holbo’s mind and that wasn’t, for me, the point of writing this. For all I know Holbo’s argument isn’t even the one that I condemn in my final paragraph. I haven’t read his article and I don’t plan to, I simply had glanced through some comments and thought, “Hmm… Lenin never struck me as a utilitarian at all. That seems wrong to say.” Still, without psychologizing him, I don’t get the impression that Holbo is really all that serious about understanding Lenin. Which is fine, really, I’m just saying.
I’ve responded to Anthony over at the Valve. It basically comes to this: all I need for my argument is the most trivial sort of utilitarianism, which Anthony (rightly) grants. So all this ‘Holbo isn’t serious about Lenin’ is just due to basic misunderstanding what I’m up to. (Anthony admits he hasn’t read my paper, so this isn’t too surprising.) The truth is: it’s important for me NOT to get entangled in claims about Lenin that might be disputable because all I need for my arguments are claims that aren’t disputable, and which Anthony doesn’t dispute. What looks like a lack of interest in Lenin is actually an interest in making my argument about Lenin as strong as possible, since it is as independent as possible from reasonable disputes about Lenin.
And of course it’s psychologically implausible to treat Lenin as actually thinking like a utilitarian, in everyday life. Because no human being does and Lenin, whatever else he may have been, was a human being. (A Jacobin, too. But all we really need to assume is that he was human to know he didn’t think like a Benthamic engine.) I think the source of the confusion here is that I’m more interested in distinguishing between normative theories and moral psychology (not separating them completely, of course) whereas Anthony would prefer to mash the two topics together: make Lenin and Leninism indistinguishable. This is a rather Hegelian thing to do. It isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But it might be problematic.
Are you some kind of postmodernist? I’m almost tempted to read your article to figure out what the hell you’re saying, but, no, I’m all too aware that wouldn’t help. So, to make your argument work, which I’m assuming is about Lenin as a normative thinker, you only need some trivial sort of utilitarianism? You don’t see a problem with claiming that Lenin was a utilitarian when he, you know, wasn’t? It seems intellectual dishonest and, at worst, meaningless to make this claim based on such an expanded definition of utilitarianism.
I’m not all that interested in distinguishing between normative theories and moral psychology because that seems to have real limits in helping us understand things. At best, it is philosophy as mixte, and that’s problematic. Leads to all this confusion between your thinking and reality.
“So, to make your argument work, which I’m assuming is about Lenin as a normative thinker, you only need some trivial sort of utilitarianism? You don’t see a problem with claiming that Lenin was a utilitarian when he, you know, wasn’t?”
When I say that all I need, for argumentative purposes, is stuff you freely grant, you don’t believe me? Or you won’t take ‘yes’ for an answer?
Or you have a problem with me assuming things that you grant are uncontroversial?
“It seems intellectual dishonest and, at worst, meaningless to make this claim based on such an expanded definition of utilitarianism.”
Why is it dishonest or meaningless to note that Lenin is a member of a large group? Would you have a similar problem if I said Lenin was a man? (There are so many men that it is meaningless, even dishonest, to assert of any one man that he is a man?)
You write as though one has an intellectual duty to describe a position fully, if you mention it at all. Having mentioned Lenin, I have to paint a whole portrait. I can’t just say one uncontroversial thing about him and move on. But, since I don’t need any more than one true thing, for my purposes – and since providing a whole account would surely embroil me in all sorts of claims that people might dispute, thereby making my argument appear weaker than it actually is – I saved space and made my presentation clearer and more forceful by only included stuff about Lenin that is true, uncontroversial, and necessary to make my case. Is this so shocking to the intellectual conscience?
I suspect that part of your resistance to calling Lenin a ‘utilitarian’ is unfamiliarity, not just with my paper (which isn’t helping matters) but with utilitarianism. For example, you write: “Utilitarian consideration would have demanded that Lenin work with these groups as they would have added to the overall number of the revolutionary forces, but he was hard and stern and demanded instead that they conform fully to the Bolshevik position, because that position was right.”
This isn’t inconsistent with utilitarianism at all. There is no reason why maximizing the greatest good for the greatest number precludes being hard and stern and taking a hard line in favor of the right position. Why should it? I think your stated determination not to distinguish between normative theory and moral psychology is confusing you here. Utilitarianism is a normative theory and you are testing for its presence as though it were a moral personality type.
The question of whether Lenin was officially a kind of utilitarian is distinct from the question of whether he was a bad utilitarian in practice, which is further distinct from the question of whether – even if he was doing things that might be defensible, on utilitarian grounds – his mind indeed tended to work through problems in ways utilitarians work through them on paper. You can’t separate these issues fully, of course. But it’s hopeless not to distinguish them at least a little. (You may not be interested in these distinctions, but that doesn’t mean you can safely ignore them.)
John, I’m not talking about your paper. I’m not going to read your paper because I think you are confused on most things and your slippage back and forth between contradictory position is, well, annoying to have to sift through. That or you’re willfully being difficult. You can do that, of course, if you really want to, but I’m not going to bother spending time with it. My mistake for even bringing it up in the comment to you. Now please go away and be a nice little Sophist somewhere else.
Well, philosophy isn’t for everyone, I admit.
Yeah, totally make this a dick size contest. Awesome.
I have to say: I admire inordinately the complex irony of that last statement, Anthony. Both the intended and unintended aspects of it. If we staged this comment thread as a little play, it would be sort of funny, yeah. But nothing great. But that last line. Please feel free to delete this final comment of mine so that the thread may remain as perfect – as complete and well-rounded a period, as true an expression of its own essence and immanent telos – as possible.
What are you talking about? I think part of your problem, and this has nothing to do with analytic philosophy or Continental philosophy, is that you think all these little classifications are incredibly clear and work towards clear thinking when they don’t. That’s why it looks like sophistry to me. I’m sorry, I know you think this is just snark, but it isn’t. What you’ve written in the above comment is unintelligible to me. For instance, you have to know that there is a difference between having an expanded understanding of the word utilitarian and the fact that there are lots of men in the world. Surely you were kidding there. Surely you get that when I try to distinguish Lenin’s actions and his thinking from utilitarianism, that I’m not agreeing with you. I’m not conceding a point to you at all! Again, not about your article or what you’re saying there, I’m only addressing the claim that Lenin is a utilitarian. I’m saying the concept only does work if means something precisely because the concept is trying to say something more distinct than that of “man”. You know this though! So why are you being so silly? You are, right? I mean, you have to be.
Please note that I’m saying nothing of your academic articles (I don’t read them), just the way you engage in comments, so let’s not turn this again to your article.
Interestingly, Zizek says that he wants to focus on Lenin before he became a “Leninist.” So plausibly he’s thinking about a man rather than a moral philosophy!
Here is the extract from the article.
“Officially, Lenin is an arch-utilitarian. He acknowledges the a priori rationality of the proposition that the good should be maximized. This holds independently of the revolutionary struggle, as its rational ground. So when good liberals wander out of the West, questioning apparently indecent operations of the Bolshevik mangle, Lenin has his facts and figures ready: “Who wants to know—the statesmen who have just sent sixteen million men to their deaths?”7”
Footnote 7 refers to “Quoted in Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972), p. 525.”
Let’s see, a book on the development of socialism, written in 1940. I don’t have the time or the energy right now to go and get this out of the library and look up your reference, but if this is your source, rather than the detailed literature of those critical of or within the tradition of Marxism, I have some reason to doubt the validity of what is quite a strong claim.
Well, I still say it would have been better if you just deleted my comment and closed the thread. (Have you no sense of high comedy? If not, then how do you console yourself when these threads finally end? They always end at some point.)
“For instance, you have to know that there is a difference between having an expanded understanding of the word utilitarian and the fact that there are lots of men in the world.”
Well yes. Those are utilitarians. And those over there are the men. And the two circles overlap in a Venn diagrammy way.
Look, Anthony, the question is whether my usage is clear enough to be understood. Utilitarianism means, roughly, ‘believes that the right thing to do is always to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number.’ That is not intolerably unclear or intolerably expansive. Of course there’s more to Lenin than that, but he believes that. So he’s a utilitarian. If you think there is some crucial unclarity to this usage, then say what the problem is. If you think it’s wrong, say why.
Alex, if you think that by studying the detailed literature etc. etc. you can show I’m wrong, then knock yourself out. But may I say: ‘If it’s Edmund Wilson it must be crap! (grumble harrumph!)’ strikes me as a distinctly bizarre refutation form, in the meantime.
Honestly, I feel like I said ‘Descartes is a rationalist,’ and then quoted some old book and you fired back: ‘but who has said Descartes is a rationalist in the last 6 months! Riddle me that!’ Can’t we just take fairly obvious stuff for granted and proceed, rather than bogging down in phony skepticism over what are actually not very strong claims? What’s the point?
The point is that Lenin the man and Leninism the political philosophy aren’t utilitarian in any meaningful way! It’s unclear to call him a utilitarian based on the fact that he was trying to bring about a qualitative change in society, rather than a quantitative. Now, please, you must stop all this “I’m just trying to make a very simple, obvious point” business. That simple point that you’re trying to make is important for you because you think it allows you to show why one shouldn’t approve of Lenin, no? Or some other conclusion, I don’t know what it is, you tell me.
Look, you and Adam seem to be making some headway. If this little discussion is raising your ire it might be best to ignore it. I do think you’re wrong about Lenin as utilitarian. I’ve tried to explain why and you might not see what I’m trying to say or you may just disagree, so everything that’s been said has probably been said. You think I’m an idiot who can’t spin an argument, I think you’re hopelessly confused on Lenin. In the grand scheme of things neither is all that important, so let’s just drop it.
“It’s unclear to call him a utilitarian based on the fact that he was trying to bring about a qualitative change in society, rather than a quantitative.”
I don’t understand this. Why should this preclude him being a utilitarian, broadly speaking?
“That simple point that you’re trying to make is important for you because you think it allows you to show why one shouldn’t approve of Lenin, no?”
What’s wrong with being a utilitarian? It’s a well respected, major axis of ethical theory.
Anthony, you have not read my article, so you would do best to refrain from scattershot speculation about it. Likewise, if you just don’t know what utilitarianism is, as I am beginning to suspect, you should look it up. Likewise, if you don’t know that utilitarianism is a well-respected view of ethics: well, now you know. If you won’t take my word for it that Lenin is kind of an ends-justifies-the-means guy, then you can go read some Lenin and, I tell you, you’ll find that he’s an ends-justifies-the-means kind of a guy. That’s all I can say. I don’t think you are an idiot, but I think you are seem peculiarly incurious about philosophical stuff you haven’t studied. Or rather, you treat philosophy as a turf war – we’ve been over this before – and that keeps you from considering perspectives that differ from your own. I know I fight, too. But I don’t take pride in what I haven’t read. I’m not eager to tell people to their face that I’m sure they’re wrong, before I’ve heard what they have to say. It’s also personally insulting when someone says: I won’t read what you’ve written because I’m sure it’s wrong. And, even though I don’t know what you think, here’s what I’m pretty sure is wrong with it.
Well, as you say, it’s probably best to drop it.
So one can be an “ends justify the means” utilitarian when the most reliable information seems to indicate that the means will not attain the stated end?
Well now we can’t drop it just yet because you had to bring out the ruler again.
I will grant that my statement about qualitative change vs. quantitative change wasn’t very clear. I’m trying to say that Lenin wasn’t trying to maximize the good for the greatest number of people. He was trying to change the way the good was measured. Now that may be utilitarian in some broad sense, but it is my contention that such a broad sense would be essentially meaningless for discussion. It leads us to false problems and discussions that go nowhere. So, it isn’t about my not understanding utilitarianism, which admittedly I have little curiosity about, but I am familiar enough with it even if I wouldn’t count it as an area of competency on my CV. I understand it, but I think the way in which you’re trying to employ it leads to unclear thinking. In this case that would be unclear thinking about Lenin. If that has anything to do with your article, which I have tried not to talk about having not read it, it is purely accidental. Yes, I’m sure it was needlessly insulting to say I won’t read your article because I assume it is wrong. I apologize for that. We do all have to make these sorts of choices thought, so please know it isn’t personal at all! It’s really a matter of time management. Now, can we put the ruler away?
“So one can be an “ends justify the means” utilitarian when the most reliable information seems to indicate that the means will not attain the stated end?”
Well, that is the very generous umbrella that I have seen fit to extend over Abraham, the better to foster dialogue about Zizek on Lenin.
There is, of course, the famous Lenin line, contra the nervous nelly liberals and tolstoyans. I don’t remember it exactly: “If the ends don’t justify the means, then, for God’s sake, what does?” Abraham might have said that, in a somewhat different utilitarian spirit. (But now, for the first time, I truly am stretching ‘utility’ to the breaking point. But only out of friendship and desire to communicate, so that’s ok.)
But if you grant that Abraham is a utilitarian in that crazy sense and that Lenin’s behavior can plausibly be understood as analogous, then your complaint that Lenin’s utilitarianism makes him utterly incompatible with Kierkegaard falls apart. The problem was that you couldn’t see the analogy between Lenin and a knight of faith — well, here it is. You appear to understand it. Therefore your argument that Zizek’s reading of Kierkegaard must be insanely off-base is invalidated.
The question still remains of why Zizek’s Lenin should be an attractive figure, of course. But you could have, and indeed should have, approached that question directly, without the bizarre detour of accusing Zizek of misunderstanding Kierkegaard because of how you read Lenin — because, as you seem to concede in the other comment thread, even if Zizek is right about Kierkegaard and about reading Lenin as a knight of faith, it’s still a pretty hard thing to swallow! But that has no bearing on your actual argument that you actually made, which was that Zizek is getting Kierkegaard wrong because you understood Lenin differently from him. That whole thing needs to be ditched. Again: that’s what’s wrong with your article.
To be clear: I’m not saying you accept the analogy as accurate, only that you understand what the analogy is supposed to be. Before you were acting like you were walking around in a cloud of unknowing, unable to understand how Lenin could possibly be Kierkegaardian. Well, you have your answer now. If you substitute in this view of Lenin, then you no longer have an argument that Zizek is reading Kierkegaard wrong and is therefore unserious or something. That is to say, the core argument of your piece falls apart.
Why you would be motivated to make such a bizarre and faulty argument is of course an interesting question — perhaps to save Kierkegaard, whom you like, from Zizek, whom you don’t? Perhaps because the voice of those rejectors of Kierkegaard was in the back of your head? We’d probably need to get Rich’s help at this point, but he’s not allowed to post on this blog.
In response to Anthony: I don’t really have a problem saying that someone who wants a qualitative improvement is a utilitarian. I think you should stop resisting on those grounds. But I understand what you are getting at. That somehow it’s more Hegelian. About achieving high states of human existence. But that’s just a potential form of utilitarianism. (Not Hegelianism, but the idea that we should aim at qualitatively better forms of life. That end justifies the means to get it.)
But actually Lenin is unusually NOT that way, among Marxists. He isn’t so interested in realizing higher stages of Spirit, even in a materialist, Marxist vein. He just wants more food and clothes and so forth for the people. Better health care. More roads and trains and factories and dams and power plants and goods. He’s really quite down to earth about the stuff he wants, compared to Marx and others who have more spiritual, or at least loftier cultural aspirations, in effect. Of course, the arrangement that will deliver these goods is of a heretofore unknown social order. But the goods to be delivered are just the old ones, only more of them and better made and more equally distributed. Lenin is like Bentham that way, I think. Give the people bread, not higher culture or some perfect ideal of community. He doesn’t mind the latter, he’s not a philistine, but higher cultural achievement isn’t what he’s on about.
(Someone please correct me if they can find the place where Lenin doesn’t sound like this.)
I’m not conflating culture with quality. Or Hegelian Spirit either. I don’t want to get going down another rabbit hole, so please keep that in mind when I say the next part. So, that said, Lenin did want to bring culture to the masses as well, but that comes after the bread. I’m guessing your reading of Lenin is reliant on someone like Service’s biography. Would that be an accurate guess?
I still think using utilitarian here is not helpful, but we’re not going to agree on that. That’s ok though.
“Alex, if you think that by studying the detailed literature etc. etc. you can show I’m wrong, then knock yourself out. But may I say: ‘If it’s Edmund Wilson it must be crap! (grumble harrumph!)’ strikes me as a distinctly bizarre refutation form, in the meantime.”
And if you think not citing, reading or understanding either primary or secondary texts of Lenin is a valid research methodology to establishing if he is or is not a utilitarian then that is a bizarre, verging on scandalous, research form.
Well, I’m going to bed. In response to Adam: the short answer of why I didn’t attribute ‘Abraham the utilitarian’ to Zizek is that it’s a serious stretch, and hardly a fully satisfactory one. (I granted it because I’m such an agreeable guy.) If that’s what we need, then Z is serving stone soup. We are providing the nutitive and tasty ingredients. The stone is Lenin-Kierkegaard. He sure didn’t work out any of the bits that taste good on the page, that I can see.
“Why you would be motivated to make such a bizarre and faulty argument is of course an interesting question — perhaps to save Kierkegaard, whom you like, from Zizek, whom you don’t?”
Because I’m a Kierkegaardian, sort of. And my article is the one Kierkegaard would have thought was exactly right. (Sorry for my lack of modesty.) If you have a view that is apparently horrible and completely nuts, you’d better get that fact right out there.
Because, yes, the straightforward thing to think about this thing – Zizek’s philosophy – is that it is a bizarre and horrible argument. Any other reading is going to be incredibly strained. It’s gonna take a load of charity. Not that you shouldn’t bring the charity, but you have to notice just what a big bucket of the stuff you will surely need.
So it seems to me that there is no way to see Zizek clearly without seeing that the most straightforward, natural, reasonable way to read him is the way I read him. (Sorry, if you want to convince me that my reading is in some way faulty, you’re gonna have to show me where the faults are.) So if there’s some way that he’s ingeniously and interestingly nuts, that insight will have to bounce off having first noticed that he looks nuts. It would have to be counterpoint to it. As it is in Kierkegaard. Who knows how to write this stuff, boy-o. So why didn’t Zizek write MY article as an appendix to “On Belief”. Why didn’t he say, in effect: this is what you’re going to think the problem is, and you’re very reasonable to think all this. What else would anyone think of an attempt to meld Lenin and Kierkegaard? But …
And NEXT Adam will tell me what comes after the ‘but’.
In short, I did the big guy a favor. And Adam, too, by extension. Because, thanks to me, none other, we’re actually going to hear what comes after the ‘but’.
No, you don’t all have to thank me at once.
You must be witheringly smart if you are so knowledgable out Lenin, yet don’t cite a single one of his volumous writings when making a strong claim about the shape of his thought. Weird.
Anyway, I broke out the books on this one. Charles Wei-Hsun Fu tells us in the Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Volume 5 Issue 4, 1978, Pages 343 – 362 that:
“Despite their apparent resemblances, however, Marxism-Leninism- Maoism distinguishes itself totally from utilitarianism for the following reasons: (1) Not only the utilitarian notion of utility is, from the Marxian
point of view, vague or ambiguous and therefore practically useless, but is also idealistic in the sense that it fails to take into serious account the
historical and social realities through a concrete (Marxian) analysis of social classes and their contradictions. In other words, there is one and
only one utility to be considered in the truly moral sense, and that is proletarian utility. (2) In spite of its flexibility in applications and sensitivity to the necessity of social change, (act-oriented) utilitarianism can never be a theory of revolution integrating each and every individual utilitarian’s choice-act into an over-all revolutionary decision making, in accordance with the principle of proletarian utility. Hence the utilitarian lack of a workable program for any urgent social change. (3) Utilitarianism, like all the other idealistic ethical theories, does not have a correct vision of ideal man and ideal society, without which the utilitarian notions such as justice or equality become ethically meaningless.”
The reason that Marxism rejects utilitarianism is because of its overall theory of the plascity of human nature in relation to the conditions of production. Utilitarianism acts from human nature “in general” where conclusion about what would case the “most happiness” reaching universalist conclusion that the historicism of Marxism rejects. You seem to be ignoring the explicit critique of Bentham in Kapital, the general mocking of him as a “book keeper” and “a genius by way of bourgeois stupidity” and constant criticism of classical economists who worked from the basis of maximising utility.
Bentham is a purely English phenomenon. Not even excepting our philosopher, Christian Wolff, in no time and in no country has the most homespun commonplace ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way. The principle of utility was no discovery of Bentham. He simply reproduced in his dull way what Helvétius and other Frenchmen had said with esprit in the 18th century. To know what is useful for a dog, one must study dog-nature. This nature itself is not to be deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would criticise all human acts, movements, relations, etc., by the principle of utility, must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch. Bentham makes short work of it. With the driest naiveté he takes the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man. Whatever is useful to this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely useful. This yard-measure, then, he applies to past, present, and future. The Christian religion, e.g., is “useful,” “because it forbids in the name of religion the same faults that the penal code condemns in the name of the law.” Artistic criticism is “harmful,” because it disturbs worthy people in their enjoyment of Martin Tupper, etc. With such rubbish has the brave fellow, with his motto, “nuila dies sine line!,” piled up mountains of books. Had I the courage of my friend, Heinrich Heine, I should call Mr. Jeremy a genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity.
Me: “This is where you’re misreading Zizek.”
John: “But I’m right about that. So why won’t you ever tell me where I’m misreading Zizek?”
I’ve told you about 40,000 times in the course of two different comment threads what I think is wrong with your reading of Zizek. You cannot plausibly claim I have failed to do that. What is at issue is not whether Zizek as such makes sense, but whether you’re misinterpreting him — and you are. If I supplied a positive account of what he’s really thinking, you’d just shift the goalpost and say, “Well fine, but why should I believe that?” as though that were an excuse for your initial misinterpretation. It’s frustrating. So just accept that I sincerely think the argumentation in your article is flawed and move on with your life.
Incidentally, although I’m sure you don’t read my exchanges with Rich, I’d suggest scanning for the concept of “backhanded apologetics” — I’m quite proud of it.
Adam K: “If I supplied a positive account of what he’s really thinking, you’d just shift the goalpost and say, “Well fine, but why should I believe that?””
No, I promise I wouldn’t. So you can go ahead and do this thing that you claim you’ve already done 40,000 times. (Please note. The fact that you are compelled to speak of how I would react to this thing you’ve done so many times in the subjective of possibility seems to me some indication that you yourself know you actually haven’t tried to do it yet.)
Alex, now I see the problem. First, Lenin is much more clearly a utilitarian, in the Benthamic mold, than Marx was. (For reasons I give upstream.) Had Marx lived, he might have had occasion to curse the way in which his philosophy had been taken over by Russian bookkeepers, in the English mold. But more generally, in the passage you quote, Marx isn’t objecting to utilitarianism. He’s objecting to one particular school of utilitarian thought. There are lots of utilitarians who think that Bentham had lots of fundamental flaws. You are confusing dissatisfaction with one expression of utilitarian with disbelief in utilitarianism in general.
Am I saying that Marx is a utilitarian, just of a different sort? I probably wouldn’t say that about him, even though there’s a grain of truth to it. Because its seriously misleading. All the Hegel stuff gets in the way. It isn’t helpful, as I think it actually is in the Lenin case.
“Incidentally, although I’m sure you don’t read my exchanges with Rich”
Then why have you been holding me responsible for them, for heaven sake!
I’ve told you what my critique of your article is 40,000 times. I never claimed I was giving a positive account of Zizek 40,000 times. Hence I’m anticipating rather than recounting your reaction to a thing that I haven’t done and don’t think I logically need to do.
Wow, that really is quite a piece of sophistry there.
Despite the fact that Marx founds the whole of Marxism on a series of premises that are staunchly anti-utilitarian (historical plasticity, anti-classical economics, I could have also pulled numerous other examples from his co-written work), which are followed on by Lenin, and that Lenin consciously continued this legacy, plainly from his writings Marx isn’t a utilitarian, but Lenin is, and maybe Marx is anyway. You draw systems of thought so close that they become an indistinguishable mush, but probably only when it suits your argument to make an unreasonable claim.
I note also you didn’t deal with the quotation from the article which makes the scope of my claims against your own more explicit.
You haven’t produced one piece of textual evidence to convince me that Lenin was a utilitarian, where as I have produced a number that show the contrary, and you have just dodged them. And you actual argument above is a piece of rather vague hand waving, as if anyone who argued for material improvement was automatically a utilitarian (and all the things you say of Lenin could be said also of Marx, who distances himself from utilitarianism) as well as ignoring every element in Lenin more than this (oooh, the ideas about workers democracy for example, and the fundamental structure of society and most of his writing).
Grow up and admit you were wrong, or hit the books and tell me I am wrong.
And though he was handing it to Bentham in this passage, as I have previous noted, Marx’s (and hence Marxist) economics are premised upon rejecting the utilitarian theories found in classical economics of. Plus he has critiques of generallly utiltarian philosophy ie Mill elsewhere. And though I don’t want to head off text too much, I am fairly sure this is a critique of the basis of all utilitarian thought, though you would obviously want to stretch this definition till it is absolutely meaningless pap.
Alex, this is an unusually hopeless line for you to take. You are I think, the lone holdout, still banging your head against what is surely almost the most unobjectionable part of my paper. Except for the claim that Kierkegaard is Danish, perhaps. Do you have a problem with that? (Doesn’t it start to hurt after a while? It looks painful. Bump. Bump. Bump.)
Here. Let me help. Just – rest for a minute. Rest your forehead.
If you have any evidence whatsoever that Lenin is not, in a general sort of way, a utilitarian, you are welcome to present it. (I like strange things.) But if all you have are passages in which Marx attacks English utlitarianism, well – welcome to the club. The club of people who can see perfectly well that Marx doesn’t like Bentham one bit, but also realize that this is no barrier whatsoever to Lenin being a utilitarian. Yes, even though Lenin was a follower of Marx. Funny old world. But why shouldn’t it be one, after all?
When Lenin said things that certainly sounded utilitarian – you think he’s kidding?
“as well as ignoring every element in Lenin more than this (oooh, the ideas about workers democracy for example, and the fundamental structure of society and most of his writing).”
You are arguing that it is impossible to discuss one feature of someone’s philosophy without discussing all of them at once? Why would that be?
But surely that can’t be right. Unless these other elements are incompatible with his being a utilitarian.
If you think you can point to elements of Lenin’s philosophy that prove that it isn’t basically ok to call him a utilitarian, do it. Belief in a worker’s democracy, for example. Show me that the fact that Lenin believes in a worker’s democracy proves that he couldn’t possibly believe in working towards the greatest good for the greatest number. Or his belief that the fundamental structure of society must be changed in such-and-such ways. Prove to me that it is inconceivable that a utilitarian could believe that.
As to meaningless: give me a reason to doubt that the following is a tolerably clear formula. Utilitarianism (consequentialism) is the normative doctrine that advocates realizing the greatest good for the greatest number. If you can show this is totally unintelligible, you have a career in philosophy! It is generally thought to be a tolerably workable thumbnail sketch of a distinctive position.
It’s not like he’s the last holdout because we all agreed. We just grew tired of talking to a wall. That wall is you.
Oh, well that sort of explains it.
Would there actually be serious interest in me trying to prove that it’s perfectly reasonable to regard Lenin as a utilitarian, and that there is such a thing as utilitarianism, in a very general sense? I haven’t really been taking this seriously as a potential project, I suppose. Would it really change people’s view of Lenin, if they knew this about him?
I’m sure people would give you the same respect you’ve given them if you did that.
It’s really a simple point that Marxism, as a discourse, is anti-utilitarian, because it believes in historical relativism (which both Lenin and Marx subscribe to). You seem incapable of understanding this, and moreover, incapable of providing any evidence that would convince me otherwise. No one is denying there is such thing as utilitarianism, just that Lenin could not be reasonably called one.
Lenin was kind of an asshole, can we all agree on that one? It’s great that in the process of discussing Lenin’s ethical views, one gets so worked up about it and the heat raises so quickly, accusations fly high, sarcastic remarks etc etc. Truly, you guys know your Lenin!
I feel sort of odd about this. It’s like someone asking me to prove the pope wears a funny hat. Yet it’s a little hard to research, because there isn’t a ‘whether the pope wears a funny hat’ section of the library, per se, even though there are tons of books about Catholicism. But I am ever an eager philosopher.
Alex, if you could be shown that Lenin could very reasonably be called a utilitarian – that that was far from a shocking or uncommon claim, and much closer to a self-evident one – would this really change your view of Lenin? And would this really matter to you? Tell me true.
And Anthony, what about you? I take it that you find it hard to forgive me for your having been so rude to me in the post itself. That is understandable. But can you see your way to considering that I might be right about Lenin, nevertheless? Your having been rude and Lenin are two things, not one, after all.
Also, Alex: how do you square your admission that there is such a thing as utilitarianism with your denial that there is utilitarianism, in my sense, since I have been quite explicit that ‘utilitarianism’, in my claim, is just to be understood in the most general, usual way?
Yes, a bit of an asshole for sure. He had his redeeming qualities though too, no?
The snark is just tiring and you really do seem to have some ineffable thing that we have to do in order to have a conversation about this. I understand what you’re saying, I think it’s wrong, to the best of my ability I’ve tried to say why I think it’s wrong, you still hold to what you’re saying. Maybe I’m just bad at this, I’m ok with that if that’s the case, or maybe you’re just really stubborn. Either way, I don’t see this going anywhere. Sorry you found me rude.
Well at least we can agree on something. It’s difficult for me to judge Lenin’s redeeming qualities, I’m too close to the picture, if you will. I do own a Lenin style cap though, for what it’s worth.
“The snark is just tiring and you really do seem to have some ineffable thing that we have to do in order to have a conversation about this”
It’s ineffable that I don’t like it when I find you rude, because you are actually being rude? (If I found you rude, and you hadn’t done anything, admittedly things would be in a more complex state.)
Look, Anthony. You write a rude post in response to perfectly reasonable and well-mannered paper and post. Taking pride in dismissing me without even considering what I have to say. And I actually leave a polite comment, above. How patient I am in response to quite obnoxious attacks! Read my first comment again. And then, when I merely point out that I don’t like it when you are rude to me, you take it as an opportunity to be rude some more. Was that really necessary? Do you really think it’s strange for me to be snarky in the face of persistent, unprovoked rudeness?
How would YOU behave if someone acted like you to you? I’ll bet you’d get snarky. So either cease to be rude or grow a thicker skin.
Look, how about we try on the following policy for size, going forward? Don’t be rude to me for no reason. I have a feeling it will be a completely sufficient fix. You won’t feel that tiring snark feeling any more.
Alex, I must have missed your early comment, quoting from that paper. I’ll requote the end bit back to you: ““Despite their apparent resemblances, however, Marxism-Leninism- Maoism distinguishes itself totally from utilitarianism for the following reasons: (1) Not only the utilitarian notion of utility is, from the Marxian
point of view, vague or ambiguous and therefore practically useless, but is also idealistic in the sense that it fails to take into serious account the
historical and social realities through a concrete (Marxian) analysis of social classes and their contradictions. In other words, there is one and
only one utility to be considered in the truly moral sense, and that is proletarian utility.”
The problem here is that the author is clearly using ‘utilitarianism’, in the first part, as a name for the Bentham school, not as a name for utilitarianism (or consequentialism) generally. That’s why I emphasized that I am only claiming it in the most general sense.
You can see the necessity of my view from the rest of this very passage. How so?
Grant – as this author does – that on the Marxist-Leninist view there is “only one true utility”, and that is the proletarian one. Why would you then advocate proletarian revolution (as opposed to, say, defense of bourgeois humanist values)? Presumably because you are a utilitarian, right? When you look at the various social classes, and historical developments, you decide which one to side with, morally, by looking to see where true utility is to be maximized. Of course Marx is not a Benthamite. Bentham’s problem, according to Lenin – Marx, too – was not that he wanted utility, but that, instrumentally, historically, he had a deluded, bourgeois conception of how to get it.
Final paragraphs of Kapital, vol. I, section 2, anyone?
In what way was this post rude? Or, you know what, just don’t. It’s fine.
Well, that’s fair enough.
I’m shutting it down.
Well, I don’t know whether this is going to go through. Pardon my inaccuracy. The post wasn’t really rude. What bothered me was the in-your-face dismissiveness, in comments, to points that I thought were perfectly civil, reasonable and clear.
OK, I get that, and I am sorry I let my frustration get the better of me as often happens online, but I was responding to real frustration that doesn’t arise from mental illness or the like.
Well alright then, we can all calm down again.
Respectfully, two questions – First, what’s wrong with ascribing labels like “utilitarian” and so on to people who didn’t use those labels? (I’d say Frederick Douglass was an anti-racist though I think he didn’t use the term, and I’d call the Diggers communists though I think they didn’t use the term. Those aren’t terms from moral philosophy but I don’t see what makes them so different. Do you object to those terms too?) That seems to be part of your objection, stated in the first couple lines of your post. You don’t just say “this doesn’t move me” but seem to have some objection which isn’t clear in your post.
Second, if your serious about your objection to ascribing terms from moral philosophy, like utilitarian, then I don’t think you should talk about virtue ethics as you’re doing part of what you object to. It’s a bit like saying “well, we shouldn’t say racial slurs, but if we’re going to, here’s a better one.” The second bit undermines the power of the objection in the first bit.
So I actually read all the comments in this thread now and I’ve decided that deep down y’all actually love each other. And I also probably need a better hobby. Anyway, on Marx as utilitarian, I think Marx changed his mind a lot and there’s a lot of evidence for a lot of views in Marx depending on what period and what works one draws from. I think there’s evidence that Marx did hold to a sort of lowercase/soft utilitarianism a la John’s definition (“maximizing the greatest good for the greatest number”). I think this quote from Marx’s address to the first international is some evidence for this.
“At the same time the experience of the period from 1848 to 1864 has proved beyond doubt that, however, excellent in principle and however useful in practice, co-operative labor, if kept within the narrow circle of the casual efforts of private workmen, will never be able to arrest the growth in geometrical progression of monopoly, to free the masses, nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their miseries. It is perhaps for this very reason that plausible noblemen, philanthropic middle-class spouters, and even keep political economists have all at once turned nauseously complimentary to the very co-operative labor system they had vainly tried to nip in the bud by deriding it as the utopia of the dreamer, or stigmatizing it as the sacrilege of the socialist. To save the industrious masses, co-operative labor ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means. Yet the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation of their economic monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labor. Remember the sneer with which, last session, Lord Palmerston put down the advocated of the Irish Tenants’ Right Bill. The House of Commons, cried he, is a house of landed proprietors. To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes. They seem to have comprehended this, for in England, Germany, Italy, and France, there have taken place simultaneous revivals, and simultaneous efforts are being made at the political organization of the workingmen’s party. ”
I take Marx here to be saying that workers’ co-ops will produce good results only for some working class people whereas the seizure of political power by the (representatives of the) working class will benefit the entire working class (which Marx thinks will eventually benefit all generations who come after a successful revolution).
I’m not particularly invested in this, but I do think Marx can be called a utilitarian (at least some of the time) according to John’s definition. That’s not the *only* thing in the passage, but that doesn’t mean Marx isn’t being a utilitarian here.
I’m in Dundee presenting a paper and visiting a good friend so I don’t have a lot of time, apologies for that. No, I don’t think there is anything wrong with using labels or whatever. I even say that this has heuristic value. What I disagreed with the particular heuristic value of his label and broad definition of utilitarian. I think it’s an overly broad definition to do any real conceptual work, not unlike, to take his example, calling him a man. From the comments at The Valve he seemed to be wanting it to do things I didn’t think he could do. So, it’s not analogous with racial slurs at all.
You can disagree with that, but I hope it clears up what I was trying to say.
“What I disagreed with the particular heuristic value of his label and broad definition of utilitarian.”
Well, for the record, I wasn’t using ‘utilitarianism’ for any heuristic value it might have. I was really only concerned with the fact that, pretty clearly, Lenin was one.
And, to repeat: Marx is a tougher case. I wouldn’t just say ‘Marx is a consequentialist’ and expect it to be flatly acceptable. But it seems to me that ‘Lenin is a consequentialist’ is about as unproblematic an ascription as you are likely to get, in the case of a complex figure. It’s up there with ‘Descartes is a rationalist’. It is seriously hard to find a good reason to deny it.
Well, in that case, I’m only interested in the fact that he wasn’t. Oh shit! We both got facts! Now, please, let it go. Just let it go. That’s 30 seconds with your children you’ll never get back.
If it’s not obvious to any of us, then maybe it’s not obvious. Something to consider.
Adam, if I think something is obviously x and you don’t think it is obviously x, wouldn’t it make at least some sense to start the discussion by checking whether, indeed, it IS x? We can hash out the application of adverbs later. We can hardly start with the adverb, as you propose. How would that even work?
Nate, it looks like the utilitarianism you’re identifying in that Marx quote comes down, roughly, to his thinking that more good stuff is better than less good stuff. But doesn’t everyone think that? What distinguishes consequentialists from non-consequentialists can’t be that consequentialists use means-end reasoning, because then everyone would be a consequentialist. The distinctive thing about consequentialists is that they think means-end reasoning alone can give you ethical conclusions.
Marx in that passage doesn’t seem to say either way whether he thinks there are further considerations that would be necessary to make an ethical evaluation, so I don’t think you can really draw a conclusion about consequentialism from this passage alone. I think something similar is probably true of Lenin; as far as I remember, he almost never discusses how one would justify revolution, so the nature of his meta-ethics is going to be hard to discover.
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