Marxism and ethics (part 2)
In the previous issue of our Review we began the publication of large extracts of an orientation text being discussed internally by our organisation on the subject of Marxism and Ethics. In the published extracts we wrote:
"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, und 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 comportment.
"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 face 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 towards the necessity of centralisation, the indispensability 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."
This first article of extracts treated the following themes:
- the problem of decomposition and the loss of confidence in the proletariat and humanity;
- the causes of the reserves among revolutionaries to the concept of proletarian morality after 1968;
- the nature of morality;
- ethics, that is the theory of morality, preceding marxism;
- marxism and the origins of morality;
- the struggle of the proletariat against bourgeois morality;
- proletarian morality.
In this issue we will continue the publication of extracts by recalling the struggles led by marxism against different forms and manifestations of bourgeois morality and on the necessary combat of the proletariat against the effects of the decomposition of capitalist society particularly in the perspective of reconquering the essental element of its struggle and of its historic perspective - solidarity.
The marxist struggle against ethical idealism
At the end of the 19th century, the current around Bernstein, within the Second International, put forward that Marxism's claim to be a scientific approach excluded the role of ethics in the class struggle. Considering the claims of a scientific and an ethical approach to be mutually exclusive, this current advocated renouncing the former in order to gain the latter. It proposed the "completion" of Marxism through the ethics of Kant. Behind its will to morally condemn the greed of individual capitalists, appeared the determination of bourgeois reformism to bury the fundamental irreconcilability of capitalism and communism.
Far from excluding ethics, the scientific approach of Marxism introduces for the first time a really scientific dimension to social knowledge, and therefore to morality. It unravels the puzzle of history through understanding that the essential social relationship is that between living labour power and the dead means of production. Capitalism prepared the way for this discovery, just as it prepared the way for communism, by depersonalising the exploitation mechanism.
In reality, the call for a return to the ethics of Kant represented a theoretical regression far behind bourgeois materialism, which had already understood the social origins of "good and evil". Since then, each step forward in social knowledge has confirmed and deepened this understanding. This applies to progress not only in science, as in the case of psychoanalysis, but also to art. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote: "Hamlet, through his mother's crime, finds all the bonds of humanity untied and the world out of joint, as does Dostoyevsky when he faces the fact that one human being can murder another. He finds no rest, he feels the responsibility for this dreadfulness weighing upon him, as it does on every one of us. He must elucidate the soul of the murderer, must trace his misery, his afflictions, down to the most hidden fold of his heart. He suffers all his tortures and is blinded by the terrible understanding that the murderer himself is the most unhappy victim of society....Dostoyevsky´s novels are furious attacks on bourgeois society, in whose face he shouts: The real murderer, the murderer of the human soul, is you!" 1
This was also the point of view defended by the young proletarian dictatorship in Russia. It called upon the courts to be "entirely free from the spirit of revenge. They cannot take vengeance on people simply because they have lived in bourgeois society." 2
It is not least this understanding that we are all victims of our circumstances, which make Marxist Ethics the most advanced expression of moral progress to date. This approach does not abolish morality, as the bourgeoisie claim, or sweep aside individual responsibility, as petty bourgeois individualism would have it. But it represents a giant step forward in basing morality on understanding rather than guilt - the feeling of culpability which hampers moral progress by cutting off the inner personality from fellow man. It replaces the hatred of persons - this prime source of anti-social impulses - with indignation and revolt towards social relations and attitudes.
The reformist nostalgia for Kant, was in reality the expression of the erosion of the will to struggle. The idealist interpretation of morality, by denying its role of transforming social relationships, emotionally conciliates with the existing order. Although the highest ideal of humanity has always been inner peace, and harmony with the surrounding social and natural world, this can only be approached through constant struggle. The first condition of human happiness is the knowledge of doing what is necessary, of voluntarily serving a great cause.
Kant understood much better than bourgeois utilitarian theoreticians like Bentham3 the contradictory nature of bourgeois morality. In particular he understood that unbridled individualism, even in the positive form of the pursuit of personal happiness, can lead to the dissolution of society. The fact that, within capitalism, there cannot only be winners of the competitive struggle, renders inevitable the division between duty and inclination. Kant's insistence on the pre-eminence of duty corresponds to the recognition that the highest value of bourgeois society is not the individual, but the state, and in particular the nation. In bourgeois morality, patriotism is of much greater value than the love of humanity. In fact, behind the lack of indignation within the workers movement in face of reformism, already lurked the erosion of proletarian internationalism.
For Kant, a moral act motivated by sense of duty, is of greater ethical value than one carried out with enthusiasm, passion and pleasure. Here, ethical value is tied up with renunciation, the idealisation of self sacrifice by nationalist and state ideology. The proletariat rigorously rejects this inhuman cult of sacrifice for its own sake, which the bourgeoisie has inherited from religion. Although the joy of combat necessarily includes the readiness to put up with suffering, the workers movement has never made, of such necessary evil, a moral quality in itself. Indeed, even before Marxism, the best contributions to ethics have always pointed out the pathological and immoral consequences of such an approach. As opposed to what bourgeois ethics believe, self sacrifice does not sanctify an unworthy goal.
As Franz Mehring underlined, even Schopenhauer, by basing his ethics on compassion rather than duty, represented a decisive step forward in relation to Kant.4
Bourgeois morality, incapable of even imagining the overcoming of the contradiction between individual and society, between egoism and altruism, takes the side of the one against the other, or searches for a compromise between the two. It fails to understand that the individual itself has a social nature. Against idealist morals, marxism defends moral idealism as a pleasure giving activity, and as one of the most powerful assets of a rising against a decaying class.
Another attraction of the ethics of Kant for opportunism, was that its moral rigorism, its formulation of "categorical imperatives" promises a kind of codex with which all moral conflicts can automatically be solved. For Kant, the certainty that one is right is characteristic of moral activity. (...) Here again, the will to avoid struggle is expressed.
The dialectical character of morals is denied, where virtues and vices, in concrete life, are not always easily distinguishable. As Josef Dietzgen pointed out, reason cannot determine a course of action in advance, since each individual and each situation is unique and unprecedented. Complex moral problems have to be studied, in order to be understood and creatively resolved. This can sometimes require a particular investigation and even the establishment of a specific organ, as the workers movement has long understood.5
In reality, moral conflicts are an inevitable part of life - not only within class society. For instance, different ethical principles can enter into conflict with each other (...), or the different levels of the socialisation of man (responsibilities towards the class, the family, the equilibrium of the personality etc). This requires the readiness to live with momentary uncertainty, in order to permit a real examination, avoiding the temptation to silence ones own conscience; the capacity to question ones own prejudices; above all a rigorous, collective method of clarification.
In the struggle against Neo-Kantianism, Kautsky showed how the contribution of Darwin on the origins of conscience in biological, originally animal impulses, broke down the firmest stronghold of idealist morals. This invisible force, this barely audible voice, which only operates in the inner depths of the personality, has always been the crux of ethical controversy. Idealist ethics was right to insist that conscience cannot be explained through the fear of public opinion or of sanctions by the majority. On the contrary, conscience can oblige us to oppose public opinion and repression, or to regret our actions although they meet with universal approval "Thus its mysterious nature, this voice within us, connected to no external impulse, no visible interest; this demon or God, which from Socrates und Plato to Kant those theorists of ethics have felt within themselves who have refused to deduct ethics from egoism or out of the blue. Indeed a mysterious impulse, but no more mysterious than sexual love, maternal love, the instinct of self preservation, or the essence of the organism as such...The fact that the moral law is an animal instinct, on a par with the self preservation and the reproduction instinct, explains its force, its insistence, making us obey without thinking."6
These conclusions have been confirmed by science since then, for instance by Freud, who insisted that the most advanced and socialised animals possess a similar basic psychic apparatus as man, and can suffer comparable neuroses. But Freud has not only deepened our understanding of these questions. Because the approach of psychoanalysis is not alone investigative, but interventional, therapeutic, its shares with marxism a concern for the progressive development of man's moral apparatus.
Freud distinguishes between the impulses ("id"), the "ego" which gets to know the environment and secures existence (a kind of reality principle) and the "super-ego" containing the conscience, and assuring the belonging to the community. Although Freud sometimes polemically claims that the conscience is "nothing but social fear", his whole conception of how children internalise the morals of society makes clear, that this process depends on the emotional love attachment to the parents, and their being accepted as examples for emulation.7(...)
Freud also examines the interaction between conscious and unconscious factors of the conscience itself. The super-ego develops the capacity to reflect on itself. The ego for its part can and must be able to reflect on the reflections of the super ego. It is through this "double reflection" that a course of action becomes ones own conscious act.
This corresponds to the marxist vision that the moral apparatus of man is based on social impulses; that it consists of unconscious, semi-conscious and conscious components; that with the advance of humanity the role of the conscious factor grows, until, with the revolutionary proletariat, ethics, based on a scientific method, increasingly becomes the guide of moral behaviour; that within the conscience itself, moral progress is inseparable from the enforcement of consciousness at the expense of feelings of guilt.8 Man can increasingly assume responsibility, not only towards his own conscience, but also for the contents of his own moral values and convictions.
The marxist struggle against ethical utilitarianism
Despite its weaknesses, bourgeois materialism, particularly in its utilitarian form - with the concept that morality is the expression of real, objective interests, represented an enormous step forward in ethical theory. It prepared the way for an historical understanding of moral evolution. By revealing the relative and transitory nature of all moral systems, it dealt a heavy blow against the religious and idealist vision of an eternally unchanging, presumably God given codex.
As we have seen, the working class, from an early stage, already drew its own, socialist conclusions from this approach. Although early socialist theoreticians such as Robert Owen or William Thompson went far beyond the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham - which they used as a point of departure - the influence of the utilitarian approach remained strong within the workers movement, even after the emergence of Marxism. The early socialists revolutionised Bentham's theory, by applying his basic postulates to social classes rather than individuals, thus preparing the way for the understanding of the social and class nature of moral history. And the recognition that slave owners do not have the same set of values as merchants, or desert nomads the same morals as mountain shepherds, had already been dramatically confirmed by anthropology in the wake of colonial expansion. Marxism profited from this preparatory work, just as it profited from the studies of Morgan or Maurer in throwing light on the "genealogy of morals".9 But despite the progress it represented, this utilitarianism, even in its working class form, left a number of questions unresolved.
Firstly, if morality is nothing but the codification of material interest, morality itself becomes superfluous, disappearing as a social factor on its own account. The English materialist radical, Mandeville, had already claimed, on this basis, that morality is nothing but hypocrisy, to conceal the base interests of the ruling classes. Later, Nietzsche was to draw somewhat different conclusions from the same premise: that morality is the means of the weak multitude, to prevent the rule of the elite, so that the liberation of the latter requires the recognition that for them, all is allowed. But as Mehring pointed out, the alleged abolition of morality in Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil", is nothing but the establishment of a new morality - that of reactionary capitalism with its hate of the socialist proletariat - freeing itself from the fetters of petty bourgeois decency and big bourgeois respectability. 10 In particular, the identity of interest and morality implies, as Jesuitism already claimed, that the end sanctifies the means.11
Secondly, by postulating social classes as "collective individuals" merely pursuing their own interests, history appears as a meaningless squabble, the outcome of which may be important to the classes involved, but not to society as a whole. This represents a regression in relation to Hegel, who had already understood (although in a mystified form) not only the relativity of all morality, but also the progressive character of rising ethical systems in violating the established morality. (It was in this sense that Hegel declared: "One imagines oneself to be saying something great in saying: man is naturally good. But one forgets that one says something far greater in saying: man is naturally evil.")12
Thirdly, the utilitarian approach leads to a sterile rationalism which eliminates the social emotions from ethical life.
The negative consequences of these bourgeois, utilitarian leftovers, became apparent at the moment when the workers movement, with the First International, began to overcome the phase of the sect. The investigation into the plot of the Alliance against the International - in particular the commentaries of Marx and Engels on Bakunin's "revolutionary catechism" - reveal the "introduction of anarchy into morality" through a "Jesuitism" which "takes the immorality of the bourgeoisie to its conclusion.". The report commissioned by the 1872 Hague Congress underlines the following elements of Bakunin's outlook: the revolutionary has no personal interests, affairs, feelings or inclinations of his own; has broken, not only with the bourgeois order, but with the morals and customs of the entire civilised world; considers everything to be a virtue, which favours the triumph of the revolution, and everything a vice which hinders it; is always ready to sacrifice everything, including his own will and personality; suppresses all feelings of friendship, love or thankfulness; never hesitates in face of the necessity to liquidate any human being; knows no other set of values but the yardstick of utility.
Profoundly indignant at this approach, Marx and Engels declare it to be the morality of the gutter, the lumpenproletariat. As grotesque as it is infamous, more authoritarian than the most primitive communism, Bakunin makes of the revolution "a series of individual, and then mass murders" where "the only rule of conduct is exaggerated Jesuit morality."13
As we know, the workers movement as a whole did not profoundly assimilate the lessons of the struggle against Bakuninism. In his "Historical Materialism", Bukharin presents ethical norms merely as rules and regulations. Tactics replace morality. Even more confused is the attitude of Lukacs in face of the revolution. After originally presenting the proletariat as the realisation of the moral idealism of Kant and Fichte, Lukacs veers towards utilitarianism. In "What Does Revolutionary Action Mean?" (1919) he declares: "The rule of the whole over the parts signifies determined self sacrifice...Only he is a revolutionary, who is ready to do anything, in order to fulfil these interests."
But the enforcement of utilitarian morality after 1917 in the USSR was above all a reflection of the needs of the transitional state. In his "Morality and Class Norms" Preobrashensky presents the revolutionary organisation as a kind of modern monastic order. He even wants to submit sexual intercourse to the principle of eugenistic selection, in a world where the distinction between individual and society has been abolished, and where the emotions are subordinated to the findings of the natural sciences. Even Trotsky is not free of this influence, since in "Their Morality and Ours", in an unspoken defence of the crushing of Kronstadt, he basically defends the formulation that the end sanctifies the means.
It is certainly true that every social class tends to identify "good" and "virtue" with its own interests. Nonetheless, interest and morality are not identical. The influence of class on social values is extremely complex, incorporating the position of a given class in the production process and the class struggle, its traditions, its goals and expectations for the future, its share in culture, as well as how all of this manifests itself in the form of mode of life, emotions, intuitions and aspirations.
As opposed to the utilitarian confounding of interest and morality (or "duty" as he here formulates it), Dietzgen distinguishes the two. "Interest is more the concrete, present, graspable well being, whereas duty concerns the extended, general well being, projected into the future (...) Duty demands that we take into account not only the present, immediate, but also the distant, not only the bodily but also the spiritual welfare. Duty also concerns itself with the heart, with the social needs, the future, the peace of the soul, in a word with the greater whole, and demands of us that we renounce what is superfluous, in order to achieve and preserve what is necessary."14
In reaction to the idealist affirmation of the invariance of morality, social utilitarianism goes to the other extreme, insisting so one-sidedly on its transitory nature, that the existence of common values holding society together, and of ethical progress, is lost sight of. The continuity of the feeling of community is not, however, a metaphysical fiction.
This "overdone relativism" sees the individual classes and their combat, but "not the total social process, the inter-connection of the different episodes; thereby failing to distinguish the different stages of moral development as part of an inter-related process. It does not possess any general standard with which to assess different norms, not able to go beyond the immediate and temporary appearances. It does not bring together the different appearances to a unity by means of dialectical thinking."15
Concerning the relationship between end and means, the correct formulation of the problem is not that the end sanctifies the means, but that the goal influences the means, and the means influence the goal. Both sides of the contradiction mutually determine and condition each other. Moreover, both the goal and the means are but links in an historical chain, where each end is in turn a means to a further reaching goal. This is why methodological and ethical rigour must apply to a whole process, referring to the past and the future, and not only the immediate. Means which do not serve a given goal, only serve to deform it and deflect from it. The proletariat, for instance, cannot defeat the bourgeoisie by using the weapons of the latter. The morality of the proletariat orients itself both on social reality and on the social emotions. This is why it rejects both the dogmatic exclusion of violence, and the concept of the moral indifference to the means employed.
Parallel to a false understanding of the link between end and means, Preobrashensky also considers that the fate of the parts - and in particular the individual - is unimportant, and can be readily sacrificed in the interest of the whole. This however was not the attitude of Marx, who considered the Paris Commune to be premature, but still rallied in solidarity to it; or Eugen Levine and the young KPD, who entered the government of the failing Bavarian council republic - whose proclamation it had opposed - to organise its defence in order to minimise the number of proletarian victims. The one sided criteria of class utility leaves, in fact, room only for a very conditional class solidarity.
As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in her polemic against Bernstein, the principle contradiction at the heart of the proletarian movement is that its daily struggle takes place inside capitalism, whereas its goal lies outside, and represents a fundamental break with that system. As a result, the use of violence and deception against the class enemy is necessary, and the appearance of class hatred and anti-social aggressions difficult to avoid. But the proletariat is not morally indifferent in face of such manifestations. Even while employing violence, it must never forget that - as Pannekoek said - its goal is to enlighten brains, not crush them. And as Bilan16 concluded from the Russian experience, it must avoid the use of violence wherever possible against non-exploiting layers, and exclude it altogether, on principle, within the ranks of the working class.. And even in the context of the civil war against the class enemy, it must be convinced of the need to counteract the rise of anti-social feelings such as vengeance, cruelty, destructiveness, since they lead to brutalisation, and dim the light of consciousness. Such feelings signal the intrusion of alien class influence. It was not for nothing that, after the October Revolution, Lenin considered that - second only to the extension of the world revolution - the priority should be the raising of the cultural level of the masses. We should also remember that it was the recognition of the cruelty and moral indifference of Stalin, which first enabled Lenin (in his testament) to identify the danger he represented.
The means employed by the proletariat must correspond, as much as possible, both with its goals, and with the social emotions corresponding to its class nature. It was not least in the name of these emotions that the December 14th 1918 programme of the KPD, while resolutely defending the need for class violence, rejected the use of terror.
"The proletarian revolution has no need of terror to achieve its goals, it hates and abhors the murder of human beings. It does not need these means of struggle because it fights institutions, not individuals, because it does not enter the arena with naive illusions, whose disappointment it would have to avenge."17 (Our emphasis).
As opposed to this, the elimination of the emotional side of morality by the mechanistic materialist utilitarianism approach, is typically bourgeois.. According to the latter approach, the use of lies and deception is morally superior, if it serves the achievement of a given goal. But the lies circulated by the Bolsheviks, in order to justify the repression of Kronstadt, not only eroded the confidence of the class in the party, but undermined the conviction of the Bolsheviks themselves. The vision that the end justifies the means, practically denies the ethical superiority of the proletarian revolution over the bourgeoisie. This forgets that, the more the concerns of a class correspond with the welfare of humanity, the more that class can draw on its moral strength.
The slogan, common in the world of business, that only success counts, regardless of the means employed, does not apply to the working class. The proletariat is the first revolutionary class whose final victory is prepared by a series of defeats. The invaluable lessons, but also the moral example of the great revolutionaries, and of the great workers struggles, are the preconditions of a future victory.
The struggle against the effects of capitalist decomposition
In the present historical period, the importance of ethical questions is greater than ever before. The characteristic tendency towards the dissolution of social ties and coherent thought necessarily has particularly negative effects on morality. Moreover, the ethical disorientation within society is itself a central component of the problem at the heart of the decomposition of the social tissue. The blockage which has resulted from the response of the bourgeoisie to the crisis of capitalism and the response of the proletariat, between world war and world revolution, is directly linked to the sphere of social ethics. The overcoming of the counter-revolution by a new and undefeated generation of the proletariat after 1968 expressed not least the historic discrediting of nationalism, above all in those countries where the strongest sectors of the world proletariat are to be found. But on the other hand, the massive workers struggles after 1968 have not, for the moment, been accompanied by a corresponding development of the political and theoretical dimension of the proletarian combat, in particular the explicit and conscious affirmation of the principle of proletarian internationalism. As a result, neither of the two major classes of contemporary society have been able, for the moment, to decisively advance their own specific class ideal of social community.
In general, the ruling morality of society is the morality of the ruling class. Precisely for this reason, each dominant morality, in order to serve the interests of the ruling class, must at the same time contain elements of general moral interest holding together society as a whole. One of these elements is the development of a perspective or ideal of social community. Such an ideal is an indispensable factor of the curbing of anti-social impulses.
As we have seen, nationalism is the specific ideal of bourgeois society. This corresponds to the fact that the nation state is the most developed unit which capitalism can achieve. When capitalism enters its decadent phase, the nation state definitively ceases being a vehicle of progress in history, becoming in fact the main instrument of social barbarism. But already, long before this happened, the gravedigger of capitalism, the working class - precisely because it is the bearer of a higher, internationalist ideal - was able to expose the deceitful nature of the national community. Although, in 1914, the workers initially forgot this lesson, the First World War was to reveal the reality of the main tendency, not only of bourgeois morality, but of the morality of all exploiting classes. This consists in the mobilisation of the most heroic and selfless social impulses of the exploited, labouring classes at the service of the narrowest and most sordid causes.
But notwithstanding its deceitful and increasingly barbaric character, the nation is the only ideal which the bourgeoisie can put forward in order to hold society together. This ideal alone corresponds to the contemporary reality of the state structure of bourgeois society. This is why all the other social ideals which come to the fore today - the family, the locality, the religious, cultural or ethnic community, the life style group or the gang - are really expressions of the dissolution of social life, of the putrification of class society.
But this is no less true of those moral responses which attempt to address society as a whole, but on the basis of inter-classism: humanitarianism, ecologism, "alternative globalisation". By postulating the improvement of the individual as the basis of the renewal of society, they constitute democratist expressions of the same basic individualist fragmentation of society. Needless to say, all of these ideologies admirably serve the ruling class in its struggle to block off the development of a proletarian, internationalist class alternative to capitalism.
Within the society of decomposition, we can identify certain features with direct implications at the level of social values.
Firstly, the lack of perspective tends to turn the focus of human comportment towards the present and the past. As we have seen, a central part of the rational kernel of morality is the defence of the long term interest against the weight of the immediate. The absence of a long term perspective thus favours desolidarisation between the individuals and groupings of contemporary society, but also between the generations. It results in the tendency toward the pogrom mentality: that is the destructive hatred of a scapegoat made responsible for the disappearance of an idealised better past. In the theatre of world politics, we can observe this tendency in the development of anti-semitism, anti-occidentalism or anti-islamism, in the multiplication of "ethnic cleansing", in the rise of political populism against immigrants, and of a ghetto mentality among the immigrants themselves. But this mentality tends to permeate social life as a whole, as the development of mobbing as a general phenomenon illustrates.
Secondly, the development of social fear tends to paralyse both social instincts and coherent reflection - the basic principles of human and above all class solidarity today. This fear is the result of social atomisation, giving each individual the feeling of being alone with his or her problems. This solitude colours the way the rest of society is seen, making the reaction of other human beings more unpredictable, and making them seem menacing and hostile. This fear - nourishing all the irrational currents of thought turned towards the past and the void - should thus be distinguished from that fear which results from the growing social insecurity brought forth by the economic crisis, which can become a powerful impulsion of class solidarity in reaction against it.
Thirdly, the lack of perspective and the dislocation of social links makes life appear to be devoid of meaning for numerous human beings. This atmosphere of nihilism is generally unbearable for humanity, since it contradicts the conscious and social essence of mankind. It thus gives rise to a series of closely inter-related phenomena, the most important of which are the development of a new religiousness, and of a fixation on death.
In societies mainly based on natural economy, religion is above all the expression of backwardness, of the ignorance of and fear of natural forces. Under capitalism, religion feeds mainly on social alienation - the fear of social forces which have become inexplicable and uncontrollable. In the epoch of capitalist decomposition, it is above all ambient nihilism which fuels religious longing. Whereas traditional religion, as reactionary as its role has mostly been, was still part of a communitarian world view, and whereas the modernised religion of the bourgeoisie represented the adoption of this traditional world view to the perspectives of capitalist society; the mysticism of capitalist decomposition nourishes itself from ambient nihilism. Whether in the form of the pure atomisation of esoteric soul searching, the famous "finding oneself" outside any social context, or in the form of the siege mentality of sects and of religious fundamentalism, offering the obliteration of the personality and the liquidation of individual responsibility, this tendency, while claiming to give an answer, is in reality but an extreme expression of this nihilism.
Moreover, it is this lack of perspective and dislocation of social ties which makes the biological fact of death seem to rob individual life of its meaning. The resulting morbidity (from which mysticism today to a considerable extent feeds) expresses itself both in a disproportional fear of death, and in a pathological longing for it. The former concretises itself for instance in the "hedonistic" mentality of the "fun society" (whose motto might be: "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die"); the latter via cults such as satanism, end of the world sects, and the ever growing cult of violence, destruction and martyrdom (as in the case of suicide bombing).
Marxism, as the revolutionary, materialist outlook of the proletariat, has always been characterised by its profound attachment to the world and its passionate affirmation of the value of human life. At the same time, its dialectical standpoint has understood life and death, being and nothingness, as part of an inseparable unity. It has neither ignored death, nor has it overvalued its role within life. Mankind is part of nature. As such, blossoming growth, but also illness, decline and death, are as much a part of its existence as the setting sun or the fall of the autumn leaves. But man is a product, not only of nature, but of society. As the heir to the acquisitions of human culture, and the bearer of its future, the revolutionary proletariat attaches itself to the social sources of a real strength rooted in clarity of thought and fraternity, patience and humour, joy and affection, the real security of a well founded confidence.
Solidarity and the perspective of communism today
For the working class, ethics is not something abstract, standing outside of its own struggle. Solidarity, the foundation of its class morality, is at the same time the first precondition of its very capacity to affirm itself as a class in struggle.
Today the proletariat is faced with the task of reconquering its class identity, which suffered such a set back after 1989. This task is inseparable from the struggle to reappropriate its traditions of solidarity.
Solidarity is not only a central component of the daily struggle of the working class, but carries the germ of the future society. Both aspects, relating to the present and future, mutually influence each other. The redeployment of class solidarity within the workers struggles is an essential aspect of the present dynamic of the class struggle and opening of the road toward a new revolutionary perspective. And such a perspective when it emerges will, in turn, be a powerful factor of the reinforcement of solidarity within the immediate struggles of the proletariat.
This perspective is thus decisive in the face of the problems with which capitalist decadence and decomposition confront the working class. For instance: the question of immigration. In ascendant capitalism the position of the workers' movement, in particular of the left, was that of the defence of open frontiers and the free movement of labour. This was part of the minimum programme of the working class. Today, the choice between open and closed frontiers is a false alternative, since only the abolition of all frontiers can resolve the issue. Under the conditions of decomposition, the issue of immigration tends to erode class solidarity, threatening even to infect workers with the pogrom mentality. In face of this situation, the perspective of a world wide community based on solidarity is the most effective factor in defence of the principle of proletarian internationalism.
Under the condition that the working class, through a long period of growing struggles and political reflection, can regain its class identity, the recognition of the reality of the undermining of social emotions, links and modes of behaviour by present day capitalism can itself become a factor pushing the proletariat to develop and consciously formulate its own class values. The indignation of the working class toward the behaviour provoked by decomposing capitalism, and the consciousness that only the proletarian struggle can produce an alternative, are central for the proletariat to reaffirm its revolutionary perspective.
The revolutionary organisation has an indispensable role to play in this process, not only through the propagation of these class principles, but also and above all by itself giving a living example of their application and defence.
Besides, the defence of proletarian morality is an indispensable instrument in the struggle against opportunism, and thus in the defence of the programme of the working class. More firmly than ever, revolutionaries must place themselves in the tradition of Marxism through an intransigent combat against alien class behaviour.
"Bolshevism created the type of the authentic revolutionist, who subordinates to historic goals irreconcilable with contemporary society the conditions of his personal existence, his ideas, and his moral judgements. The necessary distance from bourgeois ideology was kept up in the party by a vigilant irreconcilability, whose inspirer was Lenin. Lenin never tired of working with his lancet, cutting off those bonds which a petty bourgeois environment creates between the party and official social opinion. At the same time Lenin taught the party to create its own social opinion, resting upon the thoughts and feelings of the rising class. Thus by a process of selection and education, and in continual struggle, the Bolshevik party created not only a political but a moral medium of its own, independent of bourgeois social opinion and implacably opposed to it. Only this permitted the Bolsheviks to overcome the waverings in their own ranks and reveal in action that courageous determination without which the October victory would have been impossible."18
1 Luxemburg: The Spirit of Russian Literature (Introduction to Korolenko) 1919.
2 Bukharin and Preobrazhansky: The ABC of Communism. Commentary of the programme of the 8th Party Congress, 1919. Chapter IX. "Proletarian Justice". § 74. "Proletarian penal methods."
3 Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a British philosopher, jurist and reformer. He was the friend of Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say, two major economists of the bourgeoisie of the time when the latter was still a revolutionary class. He influenced "classical" philosophers of the latter like John Stuart Mill, John Austin, Herbert Spencer, Henry Sidgwick and James Mill. He gave his support to the French Revolution of 1789 and made several propositions concerning the establishment of law, the judiciary, prisons, the political organisation of the state, and colonial policy ("Emancipate your Colonies") . The young French republic made him a citizen of honour on 23rd August 1792. His influence is to be found in the civil code (also known as the "Code Napoleon" which today still governs private law in France) The thought of Bentham began from the following principle: individuals only coneive their interests in relation to pain and pleasure. They try to maximise their happiness, expressed in the surplus of pleasure over pain. Each individual had to procede according to a hedonist logic. Each action has positive and negative effects over time with different degrees of intensity; thus the individual must realise those actions that gives him most pleasure. He gave the name Utilitarianism to this doctrine in 1781.
Bentham put forward a method "the calculation of happiness and pain" intended to scientifically determine - by using precise rules - the quantity of pleasure and pain generalated by our various actions. There are seven criteria:
- Duration: a long and lasting pleasure is more useful than a passing pleasure.
- Intensity: an intense plesure is more useful than a pleasure of weaker intensity.
- Certainty: a pleasure is more useful if one is sure that it will be realised.
- Proximity: an immediate pleasure is more useful than one realised in the long term.
- Extension: a pleasure enjoyed by serveral is more useful than a solitary pleasure.
- Fecundity: a pleasure that leads to others is more useful than a simple pleasure.
- Purity: a pleasure which does not lead to suffering is more useful than a pleasure that carries those risks.
Theoretically, the most moral action will be that which satisfies the greatest number of criterias.
4 Mehring: "Back to Schopenhauer!" Neue Zeit. 1908/09.
5 Thus most of the political organisations of the proletariat have had, beside organs of centralisation that deal with "current affairs" organs such as "control commissions" composed of experienced militants who have the greatest confidence of the comrades, and specifically charged with delicate questions touching on sensitive aspects of the comportment of militants within or outside the organisation.
6 Kautsky: Ethics and Historical Materialism. Chapter "The Ethics of Darwinism" (The social instincts)
7 Confirmed by the observation of Anna Freud that orphans released from concentration camps, while establishing a kind of rudimentary egalitarian solidarity among themselves, only accepted cultural and moral standards towards society as a whole, when they were re-grouped in smaller "family" units, each led by an adult respect person, towards which the children could develop affection and admiration.
8 Kautsky´s book on ethics is the first comprehensive marxist study of this question, and his main contribution to socialist theory. However, he overestimates the importance of the contribution of Darwin. As a result, he underestimates the specifically human factors of culture and consciousness, tending towards a static vision where different social formations more or less favour or hamper basically invariant social impulses.
9 See for instance Paul Lafargue: "Recherches sur l´origine de l´idee du bien et du juste." 1885, republished in the Neue Zeit 1899, 1900.
10 Mehring: On the Philosophy of Capitalism. 1891. We should add that Nietzsche is the theoretician of the behaviour of the declassed adventurer.
11 The vanguard of the counter-reformation against Protestantism, Jesuitism was characterised by the adaptation to the methods of the bourgeoisie in defence of the feudal church. It therefore, at a very early date, expressed the baseness of capitalist morality, long before the bourgeois class as a whole (which at that time still played a revolutionary role) had openly revealed the ugliest sides of its class rule. See for instance Mehring: German History from the Onset of the Middle Ages. 1910. Part 1, Chapter 6: "Jesuitism, Calvinism, Lutherism."
12 A remark in passing. Perhaps the most appropriate answer to the age old question, whether mankind is good or evil, can be given by paraphrasing what Marx and Engels in The Holy Family wrote in the chapter about Fleur de Marie from the novel of Eugene Sue "The Mysteries of Paris": humanity is neither good nor evil, it is human.
13 The Alliance of Socialist Democracy and International Workingmen's Association. 1873. Chapter VIII. "The Alliance in Russia". Marx, Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 23.
14 Dietzgen: The Nature of Human Brainwork. 1869
15 Henriete Roland Holst: Communisme en Moraal, 1925. Chapter V. "The 'meaning of life' and the task of the proletariat". Despite some important weaknesses, this book contains above all an excellent critique of utilitarian morality.
16 Review in French of the Left Fraction of the Italian Communist Party (later, the Italian Fraction of the International Communist Left).
17 "What Does the Spartacus League Want?" (A slightly different English translation of this passage can be found in Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, Monthly Review Press 1971) Here, as in other writings of Rosa Luxemburg, we find a profound comprehension of the class psychology of the proletariat.
18 Trotsky: History of the Russian Revolution. 1930, End of the Chapter "Lenin Summons to Insurrection".