Marxism and ethics (part 1)

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Why a Text on Ethics Today?

For more than two years, the ICC has held an internal debate on the question of morality and proletarian ethics. This debate took place on the basis of an orientation text large extracts of which we publish below. If we have opened such a theoretical debate it is essentially because our organisation had been confronted internally at the time of its crisis in 2001 with particularly destructive behaviour totally foreign to the class that is to build communism. This behaviour  has been crystallised in thuggish methods used by some elements who gave birth to the so called "internal fraction" of the ICC (FICCI):[1] theft, blackmail, lies, campaigns of slander, informing, moral harassement and death threats against our comrades. The necessity to arm the organisation on the question of proletarian morality, which has preoccupied the workers’ movement since its origins, thus flows from a concrete problem which also threatens the proletarian political milieu. We have always affirmed, notably in our statutes, that the question of militant behaviour is an entirely political question. But until now, the ICC has not been able to carry out a more profound reflection on this question by linking it to that of proletarian morality and ethics. To understand the origins the goals and characteristics of the ethics of the working class the ICC has based itself on the evolution of morality in the history of humanity by reappropriating  the theoretical acquistions of marxism which are supported by the advances of human civilisation particularly in the field of science and philosophy. This orientation text did not have the objective of providing a final theoretical elaboration but to trace several lines of reflection to allow the organisation to deepen a certain number of fundamental questions (such as the origin and nature of morality in human history, the difference between bourgeois morality and proletarian morality, the degeneration of the values and ethics of capitalism in the period of decomposition, etc). To the extent that this internal debate is not yet finished we will only publish here extracts of the orientation text which seem to us the most accessible to the reader. Because it is an internal text the ideas are extremely condensed and refer to  complex theoretical concepts and we are aware that certain passages may prove difficult. Nevertheless certain aspects of our debate have matured to the point where we judge it useful to bring extracts of this orientation text to the outside in order that the working class and the proletarian political milieu may participate in the reflection started by the ICC.

From the outset, the question the political behaviour of militants and thus of proletarian morality played a central role in the life of the ICC. Our vision of this question finds its living concretisation in our statutes (adopted in 1982).[2]

We have always insisted that the statutes are not a set of rules defining what is and what is not allowed, but an orientation for our attitude and our conduct, comprising a coherent set of moral values (particularly concerning the relations between militants and toward the organisation). This is why we require a profound agreement with these values from whoever wants to become a member of the organisation.

But the statutes, as an integral part of our platform, do not solely regulate who can become member of the ICC, and under which conditions. They condition the framework and the spirit of the militant life of the organisation and each of its members.

The significance which the ICC has always attached to these principles of conduct is illustrated by the fact that it never failed to defend these principles, even at the price of risking organisational crises. In so doing, the ICC places itself consciously and unswervingly in the tradition of struggle of Marx and Engels in the First International, of Bolshevism and the Italian Fraction of the communist left. In so doing, it has been able to overcome a series of crises and to maintain fundamental class principles of behaviour.

However, the concept of a proletarian morality and ethics was upheld more implicitly than explicitly; put into practise in an emprical  fashion more than theoretically generalised. In view of the massive reservations of the new generation of revolutionaries after 1968 towards any concept of morality, generally considered as being necessarily reactionary, the attitude developed by the organisation was that it was more important to find acceptance for the attitudes and mode of behaviour of the working class, than to hold this very general debate at a moment for which it was not yet ripe.

Questions of morality were not the only areas where the ICC proceeded in this manner. In the early days of the organisation there existed similar reservations on the necessity of centralisation, or of the intervention of revolutionaries and the leading role of the organisation in the development of class consciousness, the need to struggle against democratism, or the recognition of the actuality of the combat against opportunism and centrism.

And indeed, the course of our major debates and crises reveals that the organisation was always able, not only to raise its theoretical level, but to clarify those questions which at the outset had remained unclear. And precisely regarding organisational questions, the ICC never failed to respond to a challenge with a deepening and broadening of its theoretical understanding of the issues posed.

The ICC has already analysed its recent crises, as well as the underlying tendency towards the loss of the acquisitions of the workers’ movement, as manifestations of the entry of capitalism into a new and terminal stage, that of its decomposition. As such, the clarification of this crucial issue is a necessity of the historical period as such, and concerns the working class as a whole.

Morality is the result of historic development, it is the product of evolution. It has its origins in the social instincts of the human race, in the material necessity of social life. Given that the ideals of social democracy are one and all directed towards a higher order of social life, they must necessarily be moral ideals.”[3]

Capitalism's decomposition undermines confidence in the proletariat and in humanity

Because of the inability of the two major classes of society, bourgeoisie and proletariat, to impose their solution to the crisis, capitalism has entered its terminal phase of decomposition, characterised by the gradual dissolution, not only of social values, but of society itself.

Today, in face of the “each for himself” of capitalist decomposition, and the corrosion of all moral values, it will be impossible for revolutionary organisations – and more generally the emerging, new generation of militants – to prevail without a clarity on moral and ethical issues. Not only the conscious development of workers struggles, but also a specific theoretical struggle on these questions, towards the re-assimilation of the work of the marxist movement, has become a matter of life or death. This struggle is indispensable, not only for the proletarian resistance to decomposition and the ambient amoralism, but in order to reconquer proletarian self confidence in the future of humanity via its own historical project.

The particular form which the counter-revolution took in the USSR – that of Stalinism, presenting itself as the fulfilment rather than the grave digger of the October Revolution – already undermined confidence in the proletariat and its communist alternative. Despite the ending of the counter-revolution in 1968, the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in 1989 – ushering in the historic phase of decomposition - has once again shaken the proletariat's confidence in itself as the agent of the liberation of the whole of humanity.

The weakening of self confidence, of class identity and of the vision of a proletarian alternative to capitalism, under the first shock waves of decomposition, have modified the conditions under which the question of ethics is posed. In fact, the set backs of the working class have damaged its confidence, not only in a communist perspective, but in society as a whole.

For class conscious workers, during the phase of capitalist ascendancy, and even more so during the first revolutionary wave, the assertion that the fundamentally “evil” character of humanity explains the problems of contemporary society, provoked nothing but scorn and contempt. As opposed to this, the assumption of the impossibility of fundamentally improving society and developing higher forms of human solidarity, has today become a given of the historic situation. Nowadays, deep rooted doubts about the moral qualities of our species afflict not only the ruling or the intermediate classes, but menace the proletariat itself, including its revolutionary minorities. This lack of confidence in the possibility of a more collective and responsible approach to human community is not only the result of the propaganda of the dominant class. Historic evolution itself has led to this crisis of confidence in the future of humanity.

We are living in a period marked by:

  • an extreme pessimism towards “human nature”;
  • scepticism and even cynicism regarding the necessity or even the possibility of moral values;
  • an underestimation or even denial of the importance of ethical questions.

Popular opinion sees confirmed the judgement of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) that man is a wolf to man. Man is seen as basically destructive, predatory, egoistic, irredeemably irrational, and in his social behaviour, lower than many animal species. For petty bourgeois ecologism, for instance, cultural development is viewed as a “mistake” or a “dead end”. Humanity itself is seen as a cancer growth of history, upon which nature will – and even ought – to take “revenge”.

Of course, capitalist decomposition has not created these problems, but enormously accentuated already existing ones.

In recent centuries, the generalisation of commodity production under capitalism has progressively dissolved the relations of solidarity at the basis of society, so that even their memoryrisks disappearing from collective consciousness.

The phase of decline of social formations has always been characterised by the dissolution of established moral values, and – as long as an historic alternative has not yet begun to assert itself – by a loss of confidence in the future.

The barbarism and inhumanity of capitalist decadence is unprecedented. It is not easy, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and in face of permanent, generalised destruction, to maintain confidence in the possibility of moral progress.

Capitalism has also wrecked the previous, rudimentary equilibrium between man and the rest of nature, thus undermining the longer term basis of society.

To these hallmarks of the historic evolution of capitalism, we must add the accumulation of the effects of a more general phenomenon of the ascent of humanity within the context of class society. This is the unevenness of the development of the different capacities of humanity; more specifically the gap between moral and social, and technological evolution. “Natural science is rightly considered to be the field in which human thinking, in a continuous series of triumphs, has developed its logical forms of conception most powerfully...On the reverse, as a counter proof, at the other extreme stands the large field of human actions and relationships in which the use of tools does not play an immediate role, and works only in the dim distance as the deepest unknown and invisible phenomena. There thought and action are determined mostly by passion and impulse, by arbitrariness and improvidence, by tradition and belief; there no methodical logic leads to a certainty of knowledge (...) The contrast appearing here, with perfection on the one hand and imperfection on the other, means that man controls the forces of nature, or is going to do so in ever greater measure, but that he does not yet control the forces of will and passion which are in him. Where he has stood still, perhaps even fallen behind, is in the manifest lack of control over his own 'nature' (Tilney). This is, clearly, why society is still so much behind science. Potentially man has mastery over nature. But he does not yet possess mastery over his own nature.[4]

Why the idea of "proletarian morality" was considered suspect after 1968

After 1968, the elementary force of the workers' struggle was a powerful counter-weight to the growing scepticism of capitalist society. At the same time, an insufficiently profound assimilation of Marxism led to the common assumption, within the new generation of revolutionaries, that there is no place for moral or ethical questions within socialist theory.

This attitude was first and foremost the product of the break in organic continuity caused by the counter revolution which followed the revolutionary wave of 1917-23. Until then, the ethical values of the workers' movement had always been passed on from one generation to the next. The assimilation of these values was thus favoured by the fact that they were part of a living, collective, organised practise. The counter-revolution wiped out, to a large extent, the knowledge of these acquisitions, just as it almost completely wiped out the revolutionary minorities which embodied them.

Moreover Stalinism, as the purest political product of that counter-revolution, perverted these lessons by maintaining the vocabulary of the workers' movement, while giving the concepts a new, bourgeois meaning. Just as it discredited the very word communism by attributing this title to the state capitalist counter-revolution in the USSR, so it made whole generations of revolutionaries turn away in disgust at the very concept of proletarian morality. Just as it declared the imperialist occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to be the manifestation of “proletarian internationalism”, so also did it present the vile practise of intimidation, denunciation and terrorisation of proletarians – the state “ethics” of decadent capitalist totalitarianism – as the last word in “proletarian morality”

This in turn reinforced the impression that morality, by its very nature, is an inherently reactionary affair of the ruling, exploiting classes. And of course it is true that, throughout the history of class society, the ruling morality has always been the morality of the ruling class. This is true to such an extent that morality and the state, but also morality and religion, have almost become synonymous in popular opinion. The moral feelings of society at large have always been used by the exploiters, by the state and by religion to sanctify and perpetuate the existing state of affairs. And in reality, the main role which morality has played during this period of history has indeed been that of conserving the status quo, of getting exploited classes to bow to their oppression.

The attitude of moralising, through which the ruling classes have always endeavoured to break the resistance of the labouring classes via the instillation of a guilty conscience, is one of the great scourges of humanity. It is also one of the most subtle and effective weapons of securing class domination.

Marxism has always combated the morality of the ruling classes, just as it has combated the philistine moralising of the petty bourgeoisie. Against the hypocrisy of the moral apologists of capitalism, Marxism has always insisted in particular that the critique of political economy must be based on scientific knowledge, not on ethical judgement.

All of this notwithstanding, its perversion at the hands of Stalinism is no reason to abandon the conception of proletarian morality, any more than it would justify abandoning the conception of communism. Marxism has shown that the moral history of humanity is not only the history of the morality of the ruling class. It has demonstrated that exploited classes have ethical values of their own, and that these values have played a revolutionary role in the progress of humanity. It has proven that morality is not identical either with the function of exploitation, the state or of religion, and that the future – if there is to be a future – belongs to a morality beyond exploitation, the state and religion.

People will gradually become accustomed to the observance of elementary rules of living together – rules known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all codes of behaviour – to their observance without force, without compulsion, without subordination, without that special apparatus for compulsion which is called the state.[5]

Marxism has revealed that the proletariat is called upon precisely to help free morality, and thus humanity, from the scourge of the guilty conscience and the thirst for vengeance and punishment.

Moreover, in banning petty bourgeois moralising from the critique of political economy, Marxism has been able to scientifically demonstrate the role of moral factors in the proletarian class struggle. It thus uncovered, for instance, that the determination of the value of labour power – as opposed to that of any other commodity – contains a moral element: the courage, determination, solidarity, self-dignity of the workers.

The resistance to the conception of proletarian morality also expressed the weight of petty bourgeois and democratic ideology – the abhorrence of principles of behaviour, as of all principles, as so many fetters on individual “freedom”. This weakness exaggerated the immaturity of this generation precisely as regards human and organisational behaviour, and its failure to develop anew strong traditions of proletarian solidarity.

The nature of morality

Morality is an indispensable guide of behaviour in the world of human culture. It identifies the principles and rules which regulate the living together of the members of society. Solidarity, sensitivity, generosity, support for the needy, honesty, friendliness and politeness, modesty, solidarity between generations, are treasures which belong to the heritage of humanity. They are qualities, without which society becomes impossible. This is why human beings have always recognised their value, just as indifference towards others, brutality, greed, envy, arrogance and vanity, dishonesty and infidelity have always provoked disapproval and indignation.

As such, morality fulfils the function of favouring the social as opposed to the anti-social impulses in humanity, in the interests of the maintenance of community. It canalises psychic energy in the interest of the whole. The way in which this energy is channelled varies according to the mode of production, the social constellation etc. The fact of the harnessing of these forces is as old as society itself.

Within society, as a result of the constant repetition of characteristic situations and conflicts, on the basis of living experience, norms of behaviour and evaluation are crystallised, corresponding to a given mode of life. This process is part of what Marx in Capital calls the relative emancipation from arbitrariness and mere chance, through the establishment of order.

Morality has an imperative character. It is an appropriation of the social world through judgements about “good” and “evil”, about what is and what is not acceptable. This form of approaching reality instrumentalises specific psychic mechanisms, such as conscience and the feeling of responsibility. These mechanisms influence decision making and general behaviour, and often determine them. The demands of morality contain a knowledge about society – a knowledge which has been absorbed and assimilated at the emotional level. Like all means of the appropriation and transformation of reality, it has a collective character. Via imagination, intuition, and evaluation, it allows the subject to enter the mental and emotional world of other human beings. It is thus a source of human solidarity, and a means of mutual spiritual enrichment and development. It cannot evolve without social interaction, without the passing on of acquisitions and experience between the members of society, from society to the individual, and from one generation to the next.

A specificity of morality is that it appropriates reality with the measuring scale of what should be. Its approach is teleological rather than causal. The collision between what is, and what ought to be, is characteristic of moral activity, making it an active and vital factor.

Marxism has never denied the necessity or the importance of the contribution of the non-theoretical and non scientific factors in the ascent of humanity. On the contrary, it has always understood their necessity, and even their relative independence. This is why it has been able to examine the interconnection between them in history, and to recognise their complementarity.

In primitive society, but also under class rule, morality develops in a spontaneous manner. Long before the development of the capacity to codify moral values, or to reflect on them, modes of behaviour and their evaluation existed. Each society, each class or social group (even each profession, as Engels pointed out) and each individual possesses its own pattern of comportment. As Hegel remarked, a series of acts by a subject is the subject itself.

Morality is much more than the sum of rules and customs of behaviour. It is an essential part of the coloration of human relationships in any given society. It reflects, and is an active factor, both of how man sees himself, and how he reaches understanding with his fellow man.

Moral evaluations are necessary not only in response to everyday problems, but as part of a planful activity consciously directed towards a goal. They not only guide singular decisions, but the orientation of a whole life or a whole historical epoch.

Although the intuitive, the instinctive and the unconscious are essential aspects of the moral world, with the ascent of humanity the role of consciousness also grows in this sphere. Moral questions touch the very depths of human existence. A moral orientation is the product of social needs, but also of the way of thinking of a given society or group. It demands an evaluation of the value of human life, the relation of the individual to society, a definition of one's own place in the world, one's own responsibilities and ideals. But here, the evaluation takes place, not so much in a contemplative manner, but in the form of questions of conduct. The ethical orientation thus makes its specific – practical, evaluative, imperative – contribution towards giving human life its meaning. The unfolding of the universe is a process which exists beyond and independently of any goal or objective “meaning”. But humanity is that part of nature which sets itself goals, and fights for their realisation.

In his “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” Engels uncovers the roots of morality in social-economic relationships and class interests. But he also shows their regulating role, not only in the reproduction of the existing social structures, but also in the emergence of new relations. Morality can either hamper or accelerate historical progress. Morality frequently reflects, earlier than philosophy or science, hidden changes under the surface of society.

The class character of a given morality should not blind us to the fact that each moral system contains general human elements, which contribute to the preservation of society at a given stage of its development. As Engels points out in Anti-Dühring, proletarian morality contains many more elements of general human value, because it represents the future against the morality of the bourgeoisie. Engels insists on the existence of moral progress in history. Through the efforts, from generation to generation, to better master human existence, and through the struggles of historic classes, the wealth of moral experience of society has increased. Although the ethical ascent of man is anything but linear, progress in this realm can be measured in the necessity and possibility of solving ever more complex human problems. This reveals the potential for growing richness of the inner and social world of the personality, which, as Trotsky pointed out, is one of the most important yardsticks of progress.

Another fundamental characteristic of the moral realm is that, while expressing the needs of society as a whole, its existence is inseparable from the very personal and intimate life of the individual, from the inner world of the conscience and the personality. Any approach which underestimates the subjective factor, necessarily remains abstract and passive. It is the intimate and profound identification of the personality with moral values, which, amongst other things distinguishes man from the animals, and gives them their social, transformative power. Here, what is socially necessary becomes the inner voice of conscience, linking the emotions with the current of social progress. The moral ripening of the subject arms it against prejudice and fanaticism, increasing its possibilities of reacting consciously and creatively in the face of ethical conflicts, and of carrying moral responsibility.

It is also necessary to underline that, although morality finds a biological basis in social instincts, its evolution is inseparable from participation in human culture. The ascent of humanity depends not only on the development of thought, but also on the education and refining of the emotions. Tolstoy was thus correct to underline the role of art, broadly understood, alongside that of science, in human progress.

Just as, thanks to the human capacity of understanding thoughts expressed in words, each human being can get to know everything which the whole of humanity has achieved for him in the realm of exactly the same way, thanks to the human capacity, through art, of being touched by the feelings of others, he can gain access to the emotions of his contemporaries, to what other human beings, thousands of years beforehand, have felt, and it becomes possible for him to express his own feelings to others. Were human beings not to possess the capacity to absorb all thoughts passed on, through words, from those who have lived before them, and to communicate their own thoughts to others, they would be like wild animals or a Kaspar Hauser. Were it not for that other human capacity of being affected by art, human beings would most certainly, to an even greater extent, be savages, and above all much more estranged from each other and more hostile.[6]

Ethics prior to Marxism

Ethics is the theoretical comprehension of morality, with the goal of better understanding its role, and of improving and systematising its contents and its field of action. Although it is a theoretical discipline, its goal has always been practical. An ethics which does not contribute to improving comportment in real life, is by its own definition worthless. Ethics has appeared and developed as a kind of philosophical science, not only for historical reasons, but because morality is not a precise object, but a relationship permeating the whole of human life and consciousness. From classical Greek philosophy to Spinoza and Kant, ethics has always been seen as an essential challenge, which has been met by the best minds of humanity.

Notwithstanding the multitude of different approaches and answers given, a common goal which characterises ethics is the answering of the question; how to achieve a maximum of happiness for the greatest number of people? Ethics has always been a weapon of struggle, in particular of the class struggle.

The confrontation with illness and death, with conflicts of interest, or with disappointment and emotional suffering, have often been powerful stimulants to the study of ethics. But whereas morality, however rudimentary its manifestations, is an age old condition of human existence, ethics is a much more recent phenomenon. The need to consciously orient one's behaviour and one's life, is the product of the progressively more complicated nature of social life. In primitive society, the sense of the activity of its members was directly dictated by the bitterest poverty, and the dullness and repetitiveness of life. Individual freedom of choice does not yet exist. It is in the context of the growing contradiction between public and private life, between individualisation and the needs of society, that a theoretical reflection on conduct and its principles begins. This reflection is inseparable from the appearance of a critical attitude towards society, and the will to change it in a planful manner. Thus, if the break up of primitive society into classes is the precondition for such an attitude, its appearance – like that of philosophy in general - is stimulated in particular by the development of commodity production, as in ancient Greece.

Not only the appearance, but also the evolution of ethics depends essentially on the progress of the material, in particular the economic basis of society. With class society, moral demands and customs necessarily change, since each social formation depends on a morality corresponding to its needs. This in turn confronts ethics with new questions, new contradictions which are the stimulus of progress. When the existing morals enter into contradiction with historic development, they become the source of the most terrible suffering, increasingly requiring physical and psychic violence for their enforcement, and leading to generalised disorientation, rampant hypocrisy, but also self-flagellation. Such phases pose a particular challenge to ethics, and the latter has the potential to formulate new principles which only in a later phase will grip and orient the masses.

But despite this dependence, the development of ethics is far from being a passive, mechanical reflection of the economic situation. It possesses an internal dynamic of its own. This is already illustrated by the evolution of the early Greek materialism, which made contributions to ethics which still belong to the priceless theoretical heritage of humanity. This includes the identification of the pursuit of happiness as a central concern of ethics. It includes the recognition that the “demystified” material reality behind the call of morality for “moderation” is that this happiness depends on the achievement of harmony within the individual or social organism, and a dynamic equilibrium within the polarity of the different human needs and their gratification. Already, Heraclitus made out the central issue of ethics: the relationship between individual and society, between what individuals really do and what they ought to do in the general interest. But this “natural” philosophy was unable to give a materialist explanation for the origins of morality, and in particular of the conscience. Moreover, its one sided emphasis on causality, to the detriment of the “teleological” side of human existence (planful activity towards a conscious goal), prevented it from being able to give satisfying answers to some of the most profound problems of ethics.

Therefore, not only the objective social evolution, but this lack of solutions to the theoretical questions posed, paved the way for philosophical idealism. The focus of the latter, and with it the new religious creed of monotheism, was no longer the explanation of nature, but the exploration of ethical, spiritual life. This culminated in the splitting of the personality into a heavenly (morality) and a material (bodily) part: half angel and half animal. A vision which corresponded perfectly with the consolidation of the power of an idle ruling class.

It was not until the revolutionary materialism of the ascendant bourgeoisie of Western Europe, that the triumph of ethical idealism could be seriously challenged. The new materialism postulated that the natural impulses of man contain the germ of all that is good, making the old order and the state of society the source of all evil. Not only the theoretical weapons of the bourgeois revolution, but utopian socialism emerged from this school of thought (Fourier from French materialism, Owen from Bentham’s system of "utility").

But this materialism was unable to explain where morality comes from. Morals cannot be explained “naturally” because human nature already includes morality. Nor could this revolutionary theory explain its own origin. If man, at the moment of birth, is nothing but a white page, a tabula rasa, as this materialism claims, and is solely formed by the existing social order, where do the revolutionary ideas come from, and what is the origin of moral indignation - this indispensable preconditions for a new and better society? The fact that it declared war on the pessimism of idealism - which denies the possibility of historical ethical progress, and demoralises by imposing unfulfillable moral demands - is its lasting contribution. But despite its apparently boundless optimism, this all too mechanical and metaphysical materialism delivered but a flimsy basis for a real confidence in humanity. In the end, in this world view, the “enlightener” himself appears as the only source of the ethical perfection of society.

The fact that bourgeois materialism failed in its effort to explain the origins of morality solely on the basis of experience, (and not only the backwardness of Germany or the provinciality of Königsberg), contributed to Kant falling back on ethical idealism to explain the phenomenon of conscience. By declaring the “moral law within us” to be a “thing in itself”, existing a priori, outside of time and space, Kant was really declaring that we cannot know the origins of morality.

And indeed, despite all the invaluable contributions which humanity has made, constituting, so to speak, the pieces of a still unresolved puzzle, it was only the proletariat, through Marxist theory, which has been able to give a satisfying and coherent answer to this question.

Marxism and the origins of morality

For Marxism, the origin of morality lies in the entirely social, collective nature of humanity. This morality is the product, not only of profound social instincts, but of the dependence of the species on planful, common labour and the increasingly complex productive apparatus this entails. The basis and heart of morality is the awareness of the necessity of solidarity in response to the insufficiency of the individual, to the dependence on society. This solidarity is the common denominator of everything positive and lasting which has been brought forth in the course of the history of morality. As such, it is both the yardstick of moral progress and the expression of the continuity of this history - in spite of all the breaks and set-backs.

This history is characterised by the awareness that the chances of survival are all the greater, the more unified society or the social class is, the firmer its cohesion, the greater the harmony of its parts. But it is not only a question of survival. Ever deeper forms of collectivity are the precondition for the development of the personality and for the fullest development of the potentiality of society and its members. It is only through relating to others that human beings can discover their own humanity. The practical pursuit of the collective interest is the means of the moral uplifting of the members of society. The richest life is that which is most anchored in society, with the most involvement in the lives of others.

The reason why only the proletariat could answer the question of the origin and essence of morality, is because the understanding of the communist perspective of humanity is the key to grasp the history of morals. The proletariat is the first class in history which is united through a true socialisation of production – the material basis of a qualitatively superior level of human solidarity.

Marxism thus understands that man is not, in fact, a tabula rasa at birth, but brings a series of social needs with him “into the world” – for instance the need of tenderness and affection without which the new born baby cannot properly develop, and may not even survive.

But man is also a born fighter. History shows that mankind does not generally resign itself in face of difficulties. The struggle of humanity can base itself on a series of instincts which it inherited from the animal kingdom: those of self preservation, sexual reproduction, the maternal and parental protection instincts, and which in the framework of society develop into emotional sympathy with fellow man. These qualities are not mere additions to the personality, but are profoundly anchored in it, providing the richest sources of happiness and satisfaction with life. If it is true that they are the products of society, it is no less true that these qualities in turn make society possible.

Mankind can also mobilise reserves of aggressivity without which it cannot defend itself against a hostile environment.

But the bases of the combativity of humanity are much more profound than this, being above all anchored in culture. Humanity is the only part of nature which through the labour process constantly transforms itself. This means that consciousness has become the main instrument of its struggle for survival. Each time it achieves a goal, it has altered its environment, thus requiring the setting of new and higher goals. These demand in turn the further development of its social nature.

Marxism has uncovered the causes of morality and of social improvement – the questions the old materialism were unable to answer – because it has discovered the laws of motion of human history, overcoming the metaphysical standpoint. In so doing, it has demonstrated the relativity – but also the relative validity – of the different moral systems in history. It has revealed their dependence on the development of the productive forces, and – from a certain stage – of the class struggle. In so doing, it has laid the theoretical basis for the practical overcoming of what has been one of the greatest scourges of humanity to date: the fanatical, dogmatic tyranny of each moral system.

By showing that history has a meaning, and forms a coherent whole, Marxism has overturned the false choice between the moral pessimism of idealism, and the shallow optimism of bourgeois materialism. By demonstrating the existence of moral progress, it has widened the basis of the proletariat's confidence in the future.

Despite the noble simplicity of the communitarian principles of primitive society, its virtues were tied to the blind pursuit of unquestionable rituals and superstitions, and were never the result of a conscious choice. Characteristic was the local character of these morals: the stranger embodied evil. It was only with the emergence of class society that (in Europe at the apogee of slave-based society) human beings could possess a moral value independent of blood relations. This acquisition was the product of culture, and of the revolts of the slaves and other downtrodden layers. It is important to note that the struggles of exploited classes, even when they contained no revolutionary perspective, have enriched the moral heritage of humanity, through the cultivation of a spirit of rebellion and indignation, the conquest of a respect for human labour, and the advancement of the idea of the dignity of each human being. The moral wealth of society is never just the result of the immediate economic, social and cultural constellation, but the accumulated product of history. Nor should we forget that individualisation has not only brought loneliness, but has also led to the discovery and investigation of the deepest layers of the inner being, and prepared the ground for the emergence of individual responsabilisation. Just as the experience and suffering of a long and difficult life contribute to the maturation of those who remain unbroken by it, so too will the inferno of class society contribute to the growing ethical nobility of humanity – on the condition that this society can be overcome.

It should be added that historical materialism has dissolved the old opposition between instinct and consciousness, and between causality and teleology, which marred the progress of ethics. The objective laws of historical development are themselves manifestations of human activity. They only appear as exterior forces, because the goals men set depend on the circumstances which the past has bequeathed to the present. Considered dynamically, in the flow from the past to the future, humanity is at once the result and the cause of change. In this sense, morality and ethics are at once the products and active factors of history.

By revealing the true nature of morality, Marxism in turn is able to influence its course, sharpening it as a weapon of the proletarian class struggle.

The struggle against bourgeois morality

Proletarian morality develops in combat against the dominant values, not in isolation from them. The growing unbearability of the ruling values, itself becomes one of the main motors of the development of the opposing, revolutionary morality, and of its capacity to grip the masses.

The kernel of the morality of bourgeois society is contained in the generalisation of commodity production. This determines its essentially democratic character, which played a highly progressive role in the dissolution of feudalism, but which increasingly reveals its irrational side with the decline of the capitalist system.

Capitalism subjects the whole of society, including labour power itself, to the quantification of exchange value. The value of human beings and their productive activity no longer lies in their concrete human qualities and their unique contribution to the collectivity, but can only be measured quantitively, in comparison to others and to an abstract average - which confronts society as an independent, blind force. By thus pitting man as competitor against man, obliging him to constantly compare himself with others, capitalism corrodes the human solidarity at the basis of society. By abstracting from the real qualities of living human beings, including their moral qualities, it undermines the very basis of morality. By replacing the question “what can I contribute to the community” by the question “what is my own value within the community” (wealth, power, prestige), it questions the very possibility of community.

The tendency of bourgeois society is to erode the moral acquisitions of humanity accumulated over thousands of years, from the simple traditions of hospitality and the respect of others in everyday life, to the elementary reflex to help those in need.

With its entry into its terminal phase of decomposition, this inherent tendency of capitalism tends to become dominant. The irrational nature of this tendency – in the long term incompatible with the preservation of society – is revealed in the necessity for the bourgeoisie itself, in the interests of profitable production, to have scientists investigate and develop strategies against “mobbing”, to employ pedagogues who teach schoolchildren how to deal with conflicts, and to make the increasingly rare quality of being able to work in a group, the most important qualification demanded of new employees in many companies today.

Specific to capitalism is exploitation on the basis of the "freedom" and juristic "equality" of the exploited. Hence the essentially hypocritical character of its morality. But this specificity also alters the role which violence plays within society.

As opposed to what its apologists claim, capitalism employs not less, but much more brute force than any other mode of exploitation. But because the enforcement of the process of exploitation itself is now based on an economic relationship, rather than physical constraint, there results a qualitative leap in the employment of indirect, moral, psychic violence. Slandering, character assassination, scapegoating, the social isolation of others, the systematic demolition of human dignity and self confidence, have become everyday instruments of social control and competitive struggle. More than that: they have become the manifestation of democratic freedom, the moral ideal of bourgeois society. And the more the bourgeoisie can rely on this indirect violence, and on the sway of its morality, against the proletariat, the stronger its position is.

The morality of the proletariat

The struggle of the proletariat for communism constitutes by far the summit of society's moral evolution to date. This implies that the working class inherits the accumulated products of culture, developing them at a qualitatively higher level, thus saving them from liquidation by capitalist decomposition. One of the main goals of the communist revolution is the victory of the social feelings and qualities over the anti-social impulses. As Engels argued in Anti-Dühring, a really human morality, beyond class contradictions, will only become possible in a society where not only the class contradiction itself, but the very recollection of it, has disappeared in the practice of daily life.

The proletariat absorbs into its own movement ancient rules of community, as well as the acquisitions of more recent and complicated manifestations of moral culture. These include such elementary rules as the forbidding of theft, which for the workers' movement is not only a golden rule of solidarity and mutual confidence, but a irreplaceable barrier against the alien moral influence of the bourgeoisie and the lumpen proletariat.

The workers' movement lives also from the development of social life, the concern for the lives of others, the protection of the very young, the very old, and the needy. Although love of humanity is not solely restricted to the proletariat, as Lenin said, this working class re-appropriation is necessarily a critical one, striving to overcome the rawness, pettiness and provincialism of non-proletarian exploited classes and layers.

But the emergence of the working class as the carrier of moral progress, is a perfect illustration of the dialectical nature of social development. Through the radical separation of the producers from the means of production, and their radical subordination to the laws of the market, capitalism for the first time created a class of society radically alienated from its own humanity. The genesis of the modern class of wage labourers, is thus a history of the dissolution of social community and its acquisitions - the uprooting, the vagabondage and criminalisation of millions of men, women and children. Placed outside the sphere of society itself, they were condemned to an unprecedented process of brutalisation and moral degradation. Initially, the workers' districts in the industrialised regions were breeding grounds of ignorance, crime, prostitution, alcoholism, indifference and hopelessness.

Yet already, in his study of the working class in England, Engels was able to note that the class conscious proletarians constituted the most lovable, the most noble, the most human sector of society. And later, in drawing a balance sheet of the Paris Commune, Marx contrasted the heroism, spirit of self sacrifice and passion for its Herculean task of the fighting, labouring, thinking Paris, with the parasitical, sceptical and egoistic Paris of the bourgeoisie.

This transformation of the proletariat from the loss to the conquest of its own humanity, is the expression of its specific class nature. Capitalism has given birth to the first class in history which can only affirm its humanity, and express its identity and class interest, through the unfolding of solidarity. As never before, solidarity has become the weapon of class struggle, and the specific means through which the appropriation, the defence and the higher development of human culture and morality by an exploited class becomes possible. As Marx declared in 1872: “Citizens! Let us recall the fundamental principle of the International: solidarity. Only when we have placed this life giving principle on a safe foundation among the workers of all countries, will we be able to achieve that great final goal we have set ourselves. The transformation must take place in solidarity, that is what the example of the Paris Commune teaches us.[7]

This solidarity is the result of the class struggle. Without the constant combat between the factory owners and the workers, Marx tells us, “the working class of Great Britain and the whole of Europe would be an oppressed, weak charactered, used up, meek mass, whose emancipation through its own strength would be every bit as impossible as that of the slaves of ancient Greece and Rome.” [8]

And Marx adds: “In order to correctly appreciate the value of strikes and coalitions, we must not allow ourselves to be deceived by the apparent insignificance of their economic results, but above all keep in mind their moral and political consequences.”

This solidarity goes hand in hand with the workers' moral indignation at their own degradation. This indignation is a precondition not only of the working class' combat and self respect, but also of the flourishing of its consciousness. After defining factory labour as a means of making the workers stupid, Engels concludes that if the workers were “not only able to save their sanity, but even to develop and sharpen their understanding more than others”, it was only through their indignation at their fate and at the bourgeoisie.[9]

 The freeing of the proletariat from the paternal prison of feudalism enables it to develop the political, global dimension of these “moral results”, and thus to take to heart its responsibility towards society as a whole. In his book about the working class in England, Engels recalls how in France politics, and in Britain economics had liberated the workers from their “apathy towards general human interests” an apathy rendering them “spiritually dead”.

For the working class, its solidarity is not one instrument among others, to be employed when the need arises. It is the essence of the struggle and daily existence of the class. This is why the organisation and centralisation of its combat is the living manifestation of this solidarity.

The moral ascent of the workers' movement is inseparable from the formulation of its historic goal. In the course of his study of the utopian socialists, Marx recognised the ethical influence of communist ideas, through which “our conscience is forged”. And in her “Socialism and the Churches” Rosa Luxemburg recalled how crime rates in industrial districts of Warsaw plummeted as soon as the workers became socialists.

Characteristic of moral progress is the enlarging of the radius of application of social virtues and impulses, until the whole of humanity is encompassed. By far the highest expression of human solidarity, of the ethical progress of society to date, is proletarian internationalism. This principle is the indispensable means of the liberation of the working class, laying the basis for the future human community. The centrality of this principle, and the fact that only the working class can defend it, underlines the importance of the moral autonomy of the proletariat from all other classes and layers of society. It is indispensable for the class conscious workers to free themselves from the thinking and feelings of the population at large, in order to oppose their own morality to that of the bourgeoisie.

Its position, at the heart of the proletarian struggle, permits a new understanding of the importance of solidarity in human society at large. It is not only an indispensable means to achieve the goal of communism, but also the essence of that goal. Similarly, the goal of the workers' movement, in fighting capitalism, is not only to overcome exploitation and material want, but also loneliness and social indifference.

Revolutions always imply the moral renewal of society. They cannot take place and be victorious unless, already beforehand, the masses are seized by new values and ideas which galvanise their fighting spirit, their courage and determination. The superiority of the moral values of the proletariat constitutes one of the principal elements of its ability to draw other, non-exploiting strata behind it. Although it is impossible to achieve a communist morality inside class society, the principles of the working class announce the future, and help to clear its path. Through the combat itself, the class brings its behaviour and values increasingly in line with its own needs and goals, thus achieving a new human dignity.

The goal of the proletariat is not an ethical ideal, but the liberation of the already existing elements of the new society. It has no need of moral illusions, and detests hypocrisy. Its interest is to strip morality of all illusions and prejudices. As the first class in society with a scientific understanding of society, it achieves a new quality of the other central concern of traditional morality – truthfulness. As with solidarity, this uprightness takes on a new and deeper meaning. In the face of capitalism, which cannot exist without lies and deception, and which distorts social reality - making the relation between people appear as one between objects - the goal of the proletariat is to uncover the truth as the indispensable means of its own liberation. This is why Marxism has never tried to play down the importance of the obstacles in the path of victory, or to shy away from recognising a defeat. The hardest test of uprightness is to be truthful to oneself. This goes for classes as well as individuals. Of course, this quest for understanding ones own reality can be painful, and should not be understood in an absolute sense. But ideology and self deception directly contradict the interests of the working class.

In fact, Marxism is the inheritor of the best of the scientific ethics of humanity, placing the search for truth at the centre of its preoccupations. For the proletariat, the struggle for clarity is of the highest value. The attitude of avoiding and of sabotaging debate and clarification is anathema to it, since such an approach always opens the door wide for the penetration of alien ideology and comportment.

In addition to absorbing the ethical acquisitions and developing them to a higher level, the struggle for communism confronts the working class with new questions and new dimensions of ethical action. For instance, the struggle for power directly poses the issue of the relationship between the interests of the proletariat and that of humanity as a whole, which at the present stage of history correspond to each other, without however being identical. Faced with the choice between socialism and barbarism, the working class must consciously assume responsibility for the survival of humanity as a whole. In September-October 1917, in the face of the ripeness for insurrection, and the danger that the failure of the revolution to spread would lead to terrible suffering for the Russian and the world proletariat, Lenin insisted that the risk had to be taken, because the fate of civilisation itself was at stake. Similarly, the economic politics of transformation after the conquest of power, confront the class with the need of consciously developing a new relationship between man and the rest of nature, which can no longer be that of a “victor towards a conquered land” (Anti-Dühring).



[1] For an idea of the behaviour of the FICCI elements, see our articles "Death threats against the militants of the ICC", "Informers banned from ICC public meetings", "The police methods of the FICCI", respectively in nos.354, 358 and 330 of Révolution Internationale.

[2] This vision is developed in the text "The question of the functioning of the organisation" in International Review n°109.

[3] Josef Dietzgen, "The religion of Social Democracy - Sermons", 1870, Chapter V

[4] Pannekoek, Anthropogenesis: A study of the origin of man, 1953

[5] Lenin, State and revolution, 1917

[6] Tolstoy: What is Art? 1897 (Chap. 5). In an article puiblished in Neue Zeit about this essay, Rosa Luxemburg declared that, in formulating such views, Tolstoy was much more of a socialist and an historical materialist than most of what appeared in the party press.

[7] Marx: "Speech about The Hague Congress of the International Workers Association". 1872.

[8] Marx: "The Russian Policy towards England – The Workers Movement in England". 1853.

[9] Engels: Condition of the Working Class in England. 1845. Chapter: "The different branches of work. The Factory worker in the narrow sense. (Slavery. Factory Rules)".