A communist morality

In the last of three articles Michael Malkin argues that our ethics must be based on the needs of the class struggle

As Marxists and revolutionaries all our work has in essence one fundamental aim: to help bring about the self-emancipation of the working class and thereby the liberation of humanity as a whole from the alienation, oppression and all the other anti-human shit that is inseparable from the capitalist mode of production. That is why the CPGB is adamant that the creation of a united party of the working class should be at the top of the Socialist Alliance's political agenda. Only a united, Marxist party fighting on the basis of a clear, revolutionary programme can with time mobilise the forces necessary to bring our class out of the atomised and demoralised state in which it finds itself in the current period of reaction that has followed the collapse of 'official' communism. That this goal of human liberation is self-evidently a good one - indeed, that it represents the only avenue of escape for humankind from the threat of barbarism under the conditions of global capitalist hegemony - is surely self-evident. It is something supremely worth living and, if necessary, dying for. To this writer, therefore, it seems equally self-evident that our goal and the struggle that we wage to achieve it have an intrinsically moral content. Historically, however, the relationship between Marxism and morality has been the subject of much controversy. In the writings of Marx and Engels, for example, we find no systematic treatment of the subject. Where they touch on moral questions at all, it is overwhelmingly a question of exposing the illusory, class-based nature of bourgeois morality, with its claims to constitute an eternal, unchanging and supernaturally sanctioned code of principles and conduct, whose ideological purpose is actually to maintain and defend existing relations of property and power. Yet, as we have seen, the moral indignation felt and expressed by Marx and Engels at what capitalism was doing to human beings is unambiguous. Kautsky The first Marxist theoreticians were divided on the question. If Marxist theory constitutes a scientific, empirical, essentially descriptive demonstration of how the ultimate victory of the proletariat in its struggle with capitalism was historically 'inevitable', that in some sense it 'must' happen, then what need could there be for any kind of normative or imperative moral argument to bolster the class's fight for emancipation? Kautsky's somewhat determinist, neo-Darwinian and scientistic interpretation of the classics, particularly his reading of Engels, led him in such works as Ethics and the materialist conception of history (1907) to the conclusion that irresistible economic necessity rendered the moral case for socialism at best redundant, because it involved what seemed to Kautsky an insoluble dichotomy between facts and values. Kautsky was reacting to the influence of neo-Kantianism in Austrian and German Marxist circles. The position of the neo-Kantians, exemplified by the thinking of such theorists as the German Karl Vorländer, was, to put it rather crudely, that there existed a sort of moral vacuum in Marxist theory which Kantian ethics could fill. Many of Marx's statements were heavily value-laden, but he had never got round to expounding the moral basis on which socialism was not just historically inevitable but ethically desirable: that which 'must' be also 'should' be. As Vorländer put it, "Precisely because Marxism "¦ as a social historical theory must necessarily exclude the ethical standpoint, it is, in our opinion, all the more essential for the foundation and justification of socialism to take into account this complementary standpoint, which was and is an integral element in the history of socialist ideas and even more in socialist practice". "Socialism can divorce itself from ethics neither historically nor logically, neither theoretically nor factually" (K Vorländer Marx und Kant Vienna 1904, p23). Objectively, although it would be crude to see them as mere reformists, the thinking of Vorländer and his colleagues among the German neo-Kantians amounted to a desire to give Marxist theory an ethical socialist foundation, which inevitably would raise serious questions about, for example, the role of revolution and especially revolutionary violence in the class struggle. Kantian influence was also a factor with Austro-Marxists like Max Adler and Otto Bauer, but they flatly rejected the notion that socialism required any kind of ethical foundation or justification. Adler, for example, argued in Kautskian terms that, "according to the Marxist conception of socialism, it does not come about because it is ethically justified but because it is causally produced "¦" in so far as "socialised man "¦ is finally driven by formal-teological causality to realise what he considers to be morally justified" (M Adler Kant und der Marxismus Berlin 1925, p64). Bauer likewise maintained that Marx had scientifically "demonstrated that, in capitalist society, the proletariat was bound to want socialism as the only possibility of escaping exploitation; that it can attain its goal because the concentration of property has made possible the appropriation of the instruments of labour as social property; that the working class will attain its goal, because it becomes the overwhelming majority of the population" (O Bauer, 'Marxismus und Ethic' Neue Zeit XXIV, p80ff). In short, the 'orthodox', 'Kautskyite' opponents of neo-Kantianism in the workers' movement, as well as the most prominent Austro-Marxists, thought that introducing any kind of moral imperative into the argument for socialism was supererogatory. We find the same position in the writings of GV Plekhanov and of Lenin, though in the latter case, as we shall see, there seems to be a significant change of emphasis in the period after 1917, specifically in the early 1920s. With Plekhanov, for example, we find a restatement of an essentially determinist position that essentially precludes any ethical or moral considerations: "When a class longing for emancipation brings about a social revolution, it acts in a way which is more or less appropriate to the desired end; and in any case, its activity is the cause of that revolution. But the activity, together with all the aspirations which have brought it about, is itself the effect of economic evolution, and therefore is itself determined by necessity" (GV Plekhanov Fundamental problems of Marxism 1908, p92f). Lenin, for his own sound political reasons, was a strident opponent of the ultimately reformist content of ethical socialism. In one of his polemics against the Narodniks, for example, he agreed with Sombart that in Marxism there was "not a grain of ethics from beginning to end "¦Theoretically, it [Marxism] subordinates the 'ethical standpoint' to the 'principle of causality': in the practice, it reduces to the class struggle" (VI Lenin, 'The economic content of Narodism' CW Vol 1, Moscow 1966, p421). Underlying the whole argument between 'Kautskyite' orthodoxy and the neo-Kantians was a debate about the dichotomy between facts and values. Neither side seems to have appreciated the subtle transcendence of this dichotomy in Marx's own philosophical conception of the unique role of the proletariat, nor did they grasp that this conception itself contained the kernel of what can only be called a specifically communist moral vision of emancipation. Let us recall once again that pregnant passage in one of Marx's seminal early writings: "Man is the highest being for man"; hence the "categorical imperative to overthrow all circumstances in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and despised" (D McLellan [ed] Karl Marx: selected writings Oxford 1977, p69 - hereafter KMSW). The unique, privileged role assigned by Marx to the working class cannot be overestimated. As the living embodiment of both the subject and object of history, it is the working class that can and will in the course of struggle bring about the recovery by humankind of its lost humanity, restoring to itself what in his early writings Marx spoke of in Hegelian/Feuerbachian terms as its "species being" (Gattungswesen). As Kolakowski puts it, "The consciousness of the working class actually is the process of the revolutionary transformation of society: it is not a reservoir of information, first acquired and then put into practical use, but is the self-knowledge of the new society, in which the historical process coincides with awareness of that process "¦ the consciousness of the proletariat is the self-awareness of humanity recovering its lost nature (a nature that really exists, not a normative [moral - MM] ideal. This consciousness cannot be divided into a descriptive or informational aspect and a normative or imperative one. The act by which men become aware of their own being, or return to their own essence, is a self-affirmation of humanity and, as such, cannot be reduced to awareness of the natural inevitability of the historical process or to a normative ideal, or to a combination of these two "¦ Marx's real view "¦ was that in the revolutionary activity of the proletariat the opposition between necessity and freedom ceased to exist" (L Kolakowski Main currents of Marxism Vol 2, Oxford 1978, pp41-2). It was actually Lukács who made clear that the singular role assigned by Marx to the working class in history effectively did away with the apparent dichotomy between facts and values. The self-awareness and self-knowledge of the working class acquired in and through its struggle for liberation comprehends a process whereby knowledge of the world of necessity is inextricably linked with revolutionising that world in a way that reasserts the fundamental values of what it means to be human, values that uphold the "categorical imperative to overthrow all circumstances in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and despised". Hence Lukács's observation that the "ultimate objective of communism is the construction of a society in which freedom of morality will take the place of the constraints of Recht in the regulation of all behaviour" (G Lukács, 'The role of morality in communist production', in R Livingstone [ed] Political writings 1919-29 London 1972, p48). Here, by the way, we see the origin and the justification for Lukes's paradox which we examined in earlier articles (Weekly Worker December 13, 2002). First and foremost, the self-emancipation of the working class, and with it of all humanity, is an emancipation from the alienation that, as we all know, is inseparable from wage slavery and the very nature of the labour process under capitalism: "Labour is external to the worker "¦ in his labour he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not develop freely his mental and physical energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work and in his work feels outside himself" (K Marx, 'Economic and philosophical manuscripts' MECW Vol 3, London 1976, p274); "The more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself - his inner world - becomes, the less belongs to him as his own "¦ his labour becomes an object, an external existence, existing outside him, independently, as something alien to him "¦ a power on its own confronting him as something hostile and alien" (ibid p272). Debased Founded on the basis of production not for genuine need but for profit, the capitalist system, with its fundamentally conflictual social relations that acquire a "fetish-like form", engenders a situation in which both individuals as such, and in their relations with other human beings, inevitably become "debased, enslaved, forsaken and despicable beings". Restoring humankind's "species being" hence means restoring that collectivity of social labour within which, and only within which, the powers and talents of individuals can truly flourish: "Only within the community has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community" (K Marx, F Engels, 'The German ideology' MECW Vol 5, London 1976, p86). Marx and Engels saw humankind as evolving towards the goal of real human freedom, a category defined in terms of the Hegelian notion that freedom is the recognition of necessity. What does this mean? Basically, that our growing understanding of the workings of nature and of society gives us the scope to employ natural and social forces in order to create a society in which all human beings have the means to develop their full potential. The point, however, is that mere 'understanding' is not enough. In order to unleash the forces capable of freeing it from the domination of capital, the working class must fight for its emancipation in class struggle. As we know from the Grundrisse, to be a truly human being is to be a social being, part of a free and democratic collective engaged in that social labour whereby we furnish ourselves with life's material and spiritual necessities by using every facet of our physical, mental and spiritual powers. We should not forget that under class societies - all of which are characterised by the appropriation of the surplus product by a ruling elite - it is not only we, the workers, but the capitalists themselves and their myrmidons who are alienated: ie, bereft of the possibility of being fully human. Hence Marx's intrinsically moral stress on the necessity of creating a classless society of freely associating producers who, by collectively satisfying their needs through social labour, can finally become real, human, rounded individuals. You do not need to be a Marxist to recognise that the capitalist mode of production represents the very antithesis of this vision of humanity's potential. Driven by the competitive necessity of creating ever more value and profit, capitalism's ceaseless compulsion to develop the forces of production can only bring about the alienation, the atomisation, the physical and mental dehumanisation of the vast majority of humankind. "What is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasure, productive forces, etc, created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, as well of humanity's own nature? The absolute working out of his creative potentialities "¦ which makes the development of all human powers as such the end in itself?" (K Marx Grundrisse London 1983, p488); "Socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, human nature" (K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1962, p800). Beyond this sphere of production, which "still remains a realm of necessity", there "begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which however can only blossom forth with this realm of necessity as its basis" (my emphasis ibid). Marx's vision, therefore, is of the development of the richness of human nature as an end in itself. The fundamental precondition for this development must, as we have seen, be the abolition of alienation, which only the smashing of the capitalist mode of production can bring about. The supersession of capitalism by socialism will make it possible for the first time for human beings to live in a way that befits their humanity: first, in terms of the self-realisation of individuals and the full development of their powers within the context of social labour: ie, "the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labour therefore no longer appears as labour but as the full development of activity itself, in which natural necessity in its direct form has disappeared, because a historically created need has taken the place of a natural one" (K Marx Grundrisse London 1983, p325). Secondly, by abolishing the intrinsic antagonisms and contradictions inherent in the class system and the capitalist relations of production, socialism creates the possibility of introducing rational and harmonious social relations - the conflicting interests of bourgeois civil society are replaced by a genuine collective. 'Amoralism' So long as capitalism and class society continue to exist, morality will, as Engels points out, remain class morality in so far as it embodies the ruling class's ideological justification for its continuing dominance in terms of property and power. By contrast, "a really human morality, which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life" (F Engels Anti-Düring Moscow 1947, p118). Any coherent Marxist account of morality - including, obviously, the elucidation of a communist ethic - must start by recognising the centrality of class and the class struggle. Trotsky makes the point succinctly: " The 'amoralism' of Lenin - that is, his rejection of supra-class morals - did not hinder him from remaining faithful to one and the same ideal throughout his life; from devoting his whole being to the cause of the oppressed; from maintaining an attitude untainted by the least superiority to an 'ordinary' worker, to a defenceless woman, to a child. Does it not seem that 'amoralism' in the given case is only a pseudonym for a higher, human morality?" (L Trotsky, 'Their morals and ours', in The new international June 1938). Lenin's own most eloquent delineation of the communist ethic is to be found in the text of a speech he gave to the 3rd All-Russian Congress of the Komsomol on October 2 1920. I make no apology for quoting extensively from this document, since it raises issues of vital importance. To begin with, Lenin says that, "The entire purpose of training, educating and teaching the youth of today should be to imbue them with communist ethics" (my emphasis, VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1966, p291). He goes on to ask: "But is there such a thing as communist ethics? Is there such a thing as communist morality? Of course, there is. It is often suggested that we have no ethics of our own; very often the bourgeoisie accuse us communists of rejecting all morality. This is a method of confusing the issue, of throwing dust in the eyes of the workers and peasants. "In what sense do we reject ethics, reject morality? In the sense given to it by the bourgeoisie, who based ethics on god's commandments. On this point, of course, we say that we do not believe in god, and that we know perfectly well that the clergy, landowners and the bourgeoisie invoked the name of god so as to further their own interests as exploiters. Or, instead of basing ethics on the commandments "¦ of god, they based it on idealist or semi-idealist phrases, which always amounted to something very similar to god's commandments. "We reject any morality based on extra-human or extra-class concepts. We say that this is deception, dupery, stultification of the workers and peasants in the interests of the landowners and capitalists. We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the proletariat's class struggle "¦ That is why we say that to us there is no such thing as a morality that stands outside human society "¦ Morality is what serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the working people around the proletariat, which is building up a new, communist society "¦ "To a communist all morality lies in this united discipline and conscious mass struggle against the exploiters. We do not believe in an eternal morality and we expose the falseness of all the fables about morality" (ibid p291ff). In terms of Marxian theory and philosophy, Lenin's approach is, of course, absolutely correct. The Russian proletariat, as the universal class whose self-emancipation was both a precondition for, and synonymous with, the liberation of humanity as a whole, was engaged in a life and death struggle against the forces of reaction: both the domestic enemies of communism and a concerted intervention by imperialists from abroad. In this context, it was both theoretically logical and in practice a matter of dire necessity that communist morality should be "entirely subordinated" to the interests of a class struggle on whose outcome the whole future of humanity was seen, correctly, to depend. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, the grave dangers inherent in this logic are clear. The interests of the working class in its struggle against capital are paramount in determining the content of communist morality. True. But how - concretely - are these class interests themselves specifically to be determined? Inevitably, one must conclude, by the vanguard political organisation of the working class: ie, by the Communist Party. So long as the Party itself is permeated at every level by free, open, democratic and genuinely accountable structures, this paradigm holds good. But what happens if the party degenerates, becomes bureaucratised and stultified to the point where it represents not the interests of the working class (and humanity) as a whole, but the interests of a new elite? Then 'communist morality', far from being the ethical basis of the struggle for human liberation, becomes its opposite - merely the ideological justification for a new form of slavery. Small wonder, in the light of the historical experience of Stalinism, that many sincere socialists remain deeply sceptical about communist morality as a category and about its practical implications. There is no sharper context in which to examine this dilemma than that of the thorny question about the relationship between means and ends, particularly in relation to the Great October Socialist Revolution and its aftermath. No violence For ethical socialists it is generally axiomatic that each and every human life is precious. They may - indeed many of them do - subscribe to a more or less Marxian analysis of the class nature of society, the reality of the class struggle and so forth, but on ethical grounds (in a way, like their neo-Kantian forebears) they eschew the idea that a socialist revolution - in reality the only means of smashing the hegemony of capital and liberating the oppressed and alienated majority of human beings - should involve violence, perhaps even bloody civil war. For these good-hearted people, socialism and the liberation of the working class from wage slavery must either be achieved along the parliamentary road or, one must assume, by means of some kind of velvet revolution in the course of which the ruling class politely accepts its redundancy and gives up all its property and power without demur. To begin with, let us remind ourselves of what Engels had to say on the subject: "a revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing that there is. It is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will on the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon - authoritarian means if ever there were any; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries" ('On authority', K Marx, F Engels Selected works Vol 1, Moscow 1962, p639). In her prison cell in 1918, Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet that still constitutes an important document when it comes to considering not just the political but the moral relationship between means and ends in revolutionary struggle. From a position of fundamental, if agonising and deeply critical support for the Bolsheviks, Luxemburg acknowledges that the October revolution took place "under the hardest conceivable conditions", "conditions of bitter compulsion and necessity". Nor was she under any illusions about the fact that the revolution had to defend itself against counterrevolutionary attacks in order merely to survive. But what concerned her was that in the course of its life or death conflict against reaction, the Bolshevik revolution would elevate real objective necessities into socialist norms, that the Bolsheviks could make a virtue out of necessity and transform temporary tactical expediency into a systematic reign of terror. Her most vehement criticisms are directed against the dissolution of the constituent assembly, restrictions on voting rights, press freedom, the rights of association and assembly and so forth. As Luxemburg saw it, Lenin's "elimination of democracy" under the unique conditions of the revolutionary situation had furnished a remedy that was "worse than the disease it is supposed to cure; for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come the correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammelled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people" (R Luxemburg, 'The Russian revolution', in The Russian revolution and Leninism or Marxism? Michigan 1961, p63). While accepting that socialism requires certain prerequisites in terms of the use of force - for example, in the expropriation of the exploiters - Luxemburg contends that socialism itself can never simply be imposed by decree: "The public life of societies with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off its living source of all spiritual riches and progress" (ibid p72). By contrast, Kautsky's condemnation of the means employed by the Bolshevik revolution in order to attain its ends, most notably in his work Terrorism and communism, was conceived not from a revolutionary but from a totally reformist perspective. Unlike Luxemburg, who lived and died as a revolutionary, Kautsky had become an advocate of the illusory parliamentary road to socialism. Hence his accusation that what the Bolsheviks were doing was "transforming what should have been the social struggle for liberty, and for the raising of the whole of humanity on a higher plane, into an outbreak of bitterness and revenge, which led to vast abuses and tortures". The Bolsheviks had got it all wrong because they had failed to remember that "the abolition of any form of oppression and exploitation" could only proceed under advanced economic conditions and that "wherever socialism does not appear to be possible on a democratic basis, and where the majority of the people rejects it, its time has not yet fully come" (K Kautsky Terrorismus und Kommunismus: ein Beitrag zur Naturgeschichte der Revolution p220). Since Kautsky believed that the whole enterprise was ill-conceived and premature, and - more to the point - that it failed completely to fit into his own schema, conceived in the comfort of his study, we hear nothing from Kautsky about the enormous pressures and dangers which so evidently confronted the nascent revolution. Like a good ethical socialist or liberal (the terms are most often objectively interchangeable) Kautsky chose to believe that in the fullness of time and with all the right conditions the proletariat would attain its goal of emancipation through a peaceful, parliamentary process, that the ruling class would eventually get tired with the business of extracting value and profit from its wage slaves and would dutifully hand over the keys of the business to its historical successor. The main point, in good liberal fashion, was to keep your own hands clean: "One should just as little strive to defend one's principles by surrendering them, as to defend one's life by sacrificing what gives that life content and purpose" (ibid p210). At least Rosa Luxemburg's critique came from the pen of a genuine revolutionary, whose commitment to active, mass democracy had nothing to do with the liberal exigencies of the ballot box. But she too, given her isolation from events, could not and did not come to terms with the real problem of means and ends as an ethical dilemma in the most acute conditions of revolutionary struggle. The Bolsheviks' response to the critiques of Luxemburg and Kautsky came, of course, from the pens of Lenin and Trotsky, the latter's Terrorism and communism (1920) being perhaps the most trenchant riposte to Kautsky. It is, needless to say, somewhat poignant as well as ironic that perhaps the most intransigent defender of Bolshevik terror should in due course become its most notable victim. Certainly, in its passionate intensity, this work demonstrates Trotsky's unsurpassed literary gifts. On the Bolsheviks' suppression of the media, for example, he writes that, "The Pharisees of democracy speak with indignation of the repressive measures of the Soviet government, of the closing of newspapers, of arrests and shooting "¦ but our problem is to throttle the class lie of the bourgeoisie and to achieve the class truth of the proletariat. We are fighting a life and death struggle. The press is a weapon not of an abstract society but of two irreconcilable, armed and contending sides. We are destroying the press of the counterrevolution, just as we destroyed its fortified positions "¦ and its intelligence system". The terror is a "weapon utilised against a class, doomed to destruction, which does not wish to perish" and without the terror "the Russian bourgeoisie would throttle us long before the coming revolution in Europe" (L Trotsky Terrorism and communism Michigan 1961, pp180, 80). Who can read the last phrase, "the coming revolution in Europe", without feeling the most profound pathos? But the Trotsky of 1920 had no doubt about the moral as well as the political necessity of the terror: "Who aims at the end cannot reject the means. The struggle must be carried on with such intensity as actually to guarantee the supremacy of the proletariat. If the socialist revolution requires dictatorship - ' the sole form in which the proletariat can achieve control of the state' [a quotation from Kautsky - MM] - it follows that the dictatorship must be guaranteed at all cost" (ibid p46). Some years later, writing in exile, Trotsky, while adhering to an orthodox Marxist position on the essentially class nature of morality, significantly qualified his judgement in one respect: "A means can be justified only by its end. But the end in turn needs to be justified. From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to extending the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man "¦ That is permissible "¦ which really leads to the liberation of mankind. Since this end can only be achieved through revolution, the liberating morality of the proletariat is necessarily endowed with a revolutionary character "¦ It deduces a rule for conduct from the laws of development of society, thus primarily from the class struggle, this law of all laws" (L Trotsky, 'Their morals and ours', in Marxist versus liberal views on morality New York 1969, p37). The emphasis, in view of Trotsky's and our own bitter historical experience, must naturally be on the phrase, "that which really leads to the liberation of mankind": liberation from all forms of alienation and oppression; a liberation that, yes, can only and must be achieved through the revolutionary self-activity and self-emancipation of the working class in overthrowing the conditions of its exploitation. There is indeed an intrinsic moral content to our struggle for the self-emancipation of the working class, a moral imperative that derives from Marx's own philosophical and political vision of a world free of alienation and oppression in all its forms. But let us never forget, in the light of history, that, to use Rosa Luxemburg's words, it is democracy, the "living source of all spiritual riches and progress", the "active, untrammelled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people", that is the ultimate, the only cornerstone on which a truly free and moral human society can be founded. * Part I - Marx, Marxists and morality * Part II - Human freedom and the moral veil