Friedrich Engels against liberal peace

A good example of how political philosophy is driven by ethics.

Here is Engels, Karl Marx’s collaborator in writing The Communist Manifesto and other works, criticizing liberals despite nineteenth-century liberalism’s great accomplishment in reducing war and promoting peace between nations:

“You have brought about the fraternization of the peoples — but the fraternity is the fraternity of thieves. You have reduced the number of wars — to earn all the bigger profits in peace, to intensify to the utmost the enmity between individuals, the ignominious war of competition! When have you done anything ‘out of pure humanity,’ from consciousness of the futility of the opposition between the general and the individual interest? When have you been moral without being interested, without harboring at the back of your mind immoral, egoistical motives?” [1]

Three observations:

1. In the second sentence Engels subscribes to the “capitalist peace” thesis — i.e., that free market trade promotes peace between nations: one doesn’t want to harm one’s customers or one’s suppliers with whom one has profitable relations. Interesting, since typically (or when it suits their purposes) leftists and especially Marxists argue that capitalism causes war by promoting competition for economic gain. But while Engels grants that the capitalist peace thesis is true, he doesn’t like it.

2. Engels is an anti-egoist and anti-consequentialist: the consequences of liberalism — peace, fraternity, and mutually-beneficial transactions — count for nothing because they come from “egoistical motives.”

3. And Engels’s account of proper motivation is Kantian. kant-iThe final sentence requiring that one be “moral without being interested” is straight out of Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork: “Now an action done from duty must wholly exclude the influence of inclination,” and “I am willing to allow that most of our actions many accord with duty; but if we look more closely at our scheming and striving, we everywhere come across the dear self, which is always turning up; and it is on this that the purpose of our actions is based — not on the strict command of duty, which would often require self-denial.” [2]

[1] Friedrich Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy.” Quoted in Tom Palmer, editor, After the Welfare State, Jameson Books/Students for Liberty/Atlas Network, 2012, p. 37. [Thanks to Richard Lorenc for bringing the quotation to my attention.]
[2] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by H. J. Paton, Harper Torchbooks, Sections 397 and 407.

Is commerce rendering war obsolete?

2 thoughts on “Friedrich Engels against liberal peace

  • September 15, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    Notice Engles use of weasel words. He didn’t just say “egotistical motives.” Engles said “immoral, egotistical motives.” He provides not argument for this but simply assumes that egotistical motives are immoral.

  • January 23, 2013 at 3:22 am

    Well bob given that capitalism has exacerbated inequality we can most certainly make a good argument egotistical motives ARE immoral when they emanate from men and women of inferior character that don’t respect limits of any system of power and exploitation.

    Capitalism and free markets could work if humanity was responsible and intelligent enough to not abuse and understand the limits of power, but that definitely is not modern america nor it’s leaders. The damn leaders of the capitalist world.

    If anything the peace that prosperity brings from trade is temporary since technology is now displacing jobs at an incredible rate and capitalism as we know it will be forced into some kind of socialism in the future because of AI and robotics. So marx may be right after all but it won’t be revolution from below but brute fact of capitalism making the bulk of the population unable to sustain themselves given the primitive economic model in a high tech society.

    If we add up all the suicides from work and relationship stress in capitalism can we really say it promotes peace or do free markets merely channel violence into certain members of the population and rob them of their health of body and mind? (the huge rise of depression, anxiety, disability, etc) in modern markets because of enormous stress job competition and precarious work creates.

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