Terry Eagleton once remarked that Marx made “the characteristically bourgeois mistake of confusing morality with moralism” (After Theory, 143). For many on the left, morals, being good, let alone following the Good, should have nothing to do with economics and politics. Such talk is illusory at best and ideological at worst.
Yet Marx himself was profoundly concerned about morals. Writing about the degradations of capitalism was not simply an intellectual exercise for Marx.
So why is such a confusion between morality and moralism a “bourgeois” mistake and not just a mistake in general? In Christianity and Marxism, Denys Turner offers an explanation:
It is an error of substance to call by the name ‘morality’ what has been done under that name by philosophers from Kant to Hare. For what we now call morality is in radical discontinuity with that classical conception – of which Marxism is the inheritor – which was of a scientific investigation of the social order that can generate norms of action. The discontinuity of the contemporary bourgeois with the classical conception is, therefore, important at the very least from the point of view of the studies of ideologies… It is… a conceptual response governed by the social pressure of a class society that we have to bifurcate the ‘moral’ from the ‘scientific’. It is very important, therefore, that Marxists recognize what has happened: that ‘morality’ in its bourgeois sense has abandoned the role which was once assigned to it on the classical conception and has been redefined so as to work against that role (85).
According to Turner, Marx failed to grasp the nuances or historical situatedness of moral philosophy, regarding all instances of morality as prototypically Kantian; that is, as abstract, universal, etc. Marx seems to have missed the fact that the separation of facts or scientific investigation on the one hand, and morals on the other, is itself a product of a class-based society. The “bourgeois” mistake, then, is to fail to see that the proper study of morality – the classical conception – has nothing to do with abstract rules and everything to do with the political order and concrete social relations.
Regardless of Marx’s mistake, both Eagleton and Turner point out that Marx was certainly right to disparage the Kantian morality of his time, which sadly infected so much of Christian moral philosophy, even up to present day.
Speaking to Christians in general, Turner writes that “in the bourgeois world moral views come exceedingly cheap.” He continues:
It is worrying for a Christian that all too often it is Christians themselves who are in practice the meanest buyers in the moral market. They, who talk so readily and unproblematically about (of all things) ‘love’, seem quite to have forgotten that Christianity, embodied in the life of its founder, came not so much with news about love, but rather about its price. And if Christians have forgotten what that price is, they may reasonably doubt whether they have been trading in the genuine article, rather than a counterfeit. Marxism may perhaps serve to remind them that the price of love is revolution and, ultimately, death (x).