Alasdair MacIntyre and Holistic Marxism

Linked with Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre – England (will appear on oct. 18).

Published on, by Thomas Riggins, 06 October, 2008.

One of the more interesting establishment philosophers, MacIntyre has recently had two volumes of his essays and articles published: “The Tasks of Philosophy” and “Ethics and Politics.” These observations are based on Constantine Sandis’ review of these volumes (”Torn away from sureness”) in the TLS of August 15, 2008. Some of MacIntyre’s work has relevance to Marxist thought. He says for instance, as Sandis points out, that the concepts that are used to delineate an ideology (and this includes Marxism) cannot be understood free of their original contexts from which they derive their meaning. Treating them outside of this context makes them appear unwarranted or nonsensical. If we, for example, decide to adopt Marxism as a guiding light but lack the requisite background contextual knowledge regarding the origin of its concepts and doctrines, we run the risk of mixing up the ideological statements of Marxism with the ideological statements of other points of view (Liberalism,Buddhism, etc.)and we could end up with an incoherent mishmash of different points of views which will prevent us from having a proper understanding of reality.

It is the job of philosophy to prevent this from happening. We must, as Sandis says, engage “in socio-linguistic palaeontology aimed at unearthing previously hidden meanings and connections” …

… MacIntyre’s ethical system is cast in a Kantian mould rather that a utilitarian one (i.e., a consequentialist one). He thinks there are some moral rules that we can never be justified in breaking. Against this view stand those who contend “the moral polarity of any act [is] (at least partly) determined by the circumstances in which it was performed.” That is that there is no universal ban on any act but each must be judged either by its results and/or motives and the context surrounding it taken into consideration.

Marx in his day didn’t think much of utilitarianism, nor did Lenin of Kantianism. How sould a Marxist react to this choice? Sandis indicates that MacIntyre’s position is not ironclad and plausible exceptions to it have been suggested. Sandis suggests that morality may be a disposition. To paraphrase him, we might say that if “fragility” is a disposition to break at certain times and not to break at others, so morality is a disposition to act in a certain way in certain cases and not in others. He gives as an example that “an act of intentionally not telling the truth need not be vicious, for there might always be circumstances where one virtuous disposition (say that of kindness) can only be manifested if another (say that of honesty, or of justice) is not.”

Marxists can learn something from MacIntyre. I think his views on holism are useful, as are his remarks on the coherence of our ideas and their need for justification as well as his attempt to avoid relativism. A Marxist proposition should be part of a system of coherent (non contradictory)co-propositions which can be justified by an appeal to practice and that serve the interests, broadly defined, of the working class in its efforts to abolish the capitalist system. The construction of this holistic system is the task of 21st century Marxists. (full text).

(Thomas Riggins is the associate editor of Political Affairs magazine).

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