Marxists and Morality

What is moral and what is amoral in the struggle for the transformation of society? 75 years ago Leon Trotsky wrote his masterpiece Their Morals and Ours, in which he explained that morality is one of the key ideological components in the class struggle.

“The ruling class forces its ends upon society and habituates it into considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral. That is the chief function of official morality. It pursues the idea of the “greatest possible happiness” not for the majority but for a small and ever diminishing minority. Such a regime could not have endured for even a week through force alone. It needs the cement of morality.” (Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours, 1938)

The class struggle cannot be reduced to a question of mere economics and that is why Marxism deals with all spheres of life. Capitalism today finds itself in an organic crisis. It is an economic crisis based on the fact that capitalism as a system cannot take production forward. We have millions who are unemployed while factories and machines are standing still. And this is happening not because we do not need what could be produced, but because the capitalists cannot sell everything that the system has the capacity to produce and therefore cannot create enough profit for the capitalist class.

This crisis in the economy leads to a general crisis in society and a crisis in the regimes that govern society – state corruption, political scandals, sex scandals in the church and the illegal intrusion by the media into people’s private lives. In short, the crisis in the economy is also expressed as a crisis of morality.


Open the papers any day in any western country and you will find someone moaning about the lack of morality in society. In Denmark the government is planning to cut student grants and to prepare the ground for this attack the students are portrayed as being greedy and selfish. There is also a constant campaign about “social fraud” aimed at stigmatising all those who are on the dole.

And when young people’s anger and frustration come to the surface and leads to street protests, there is a hue and cry about the end of morality, as was the case during the riots in Britain in the summer of 2011. “Look at all the cars burned and shops plundered!” they cry.

As Marxists we do not believe that looting and burning cars is the way to solve the problems of the youth. It does not change anything – quite the opposite. However, we do not add our voices to those who simply complain about the “unruly” youth. Our task is neither to weep nor laugh, but to understand. We first ask the question: what lies behind these outbursts of anger and violence?

Beneath the surface we see the building up of an enormous frustration with a society that discriminates between the haves and have-nots, a society that offers no future for a whole generation. And secondly we have to ask: who are these moral hypocrites who moan about the lack of morality? The top layers of this society are rotten to the core. Every day in the same papers you see one scandal after another involving the Establishment.

In 2009 we had the scandal of British MPs who had claimed large amounts of public money as “expenses” to refurbish luxury flats, pay for non-existent premises and even repair moats around castles! In Spain, the ruling party PP is now involved in a corruption scandal. Not to speak of the Spanish royal family. While massive attacks were being carried out on the Spanish working class, King Juan Carlos was on a £20,000safari in Africa hunting elephants (a protected species).

In Britain the media itself has also been exposed as being completely rotten. They hacked the mobile phone of a murdered teenage girl, bribed police officers, and suborned and blackmailed the holders of the Highest Office in the Land. And then we have the bankers and finance speculators who literally make money by cheating people.

In the light of all this, it is easy to see that those who cry out about the amorality of a young single mother who steals a pair of sneakers during a riot are nothing but hypocrites. These “moralists” defend a society in decay; they defend the privileges of the few. Their morality is the kind that defends a society where plenty of food is produced to feed all, but which sees each year 2.6m children under the age of five dying due to malnutrition. They defend a society where, according to the UK-based charity Oxfam, the income of the world's richest one percent has increased by 60 percent in the last 20 years. The same report reveals that the world's 100 richest individuals earned enough in 2012 to end extreme poverty four times over.

If we want to talk about amorality, it is this situation that is amoral! The ruling class talk of “freedom”, but the “free market” in the midst of plenty cannot provide food to those suffering from hunger.

As part of their efforts to defend this system they brand all those who fight against it as amoral. And those who fight it most consistently, the Marxists, they portray as the most amoral of all!

The scarecrow of the USSR

All socialists will have had the experience of having their arguments brushed to one side with the usual line: “but look at what happened in the USSR!” But such a response is not a valid argument against those fighting for Socialism. Society cannot be looked at in the abstract; you have to look at the historical process and the material basis of each society. Truth is concrete.

The USSR was created after the Russian workers took power in the October revolution of 1917. They created the most democratic state the world had ever seen, run by workers’ councils, in Russian “soviets”. The problem was that Russia in 1917 was an extremely backward country with feudal relations existing in many parts of the country.

Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of the Russian Revolution, understood very clearly that the revolution was the spark to ignite the European revolution, and that this would be the only way of securing the revolution in Russia. The revolution did in fact ignite a revolutionary wave across Europe but for reasons explained elsewhere – fundamentally the role played by the Social-democratic leaders in holding back the workers – the revolutions were defeated. The defeat of the German revolution was a particularly devastating blow for the young Soviet republic, which left it isolated.

The Russian economy was shattered after the devastation of the First World War, the ensuing civil war and the invasion by 21 foreign armies. This was the material base for the degeneration of the revolution and for the rise of the bureaucracy as a ruling clique led by Stalin. Instead of equality and the gradual withering away of the state and class divisions, as Marx had foreseen for the future Communist society, the rise of the bureaucracy led to a strengthening of the state that rose above society.

Trotsky and the Left Opposition fought against these developments, while at the same they defended the material basis established by the revolution, i.e. the planned economy. What today’s bourgeois critics of the Soviet Union conveniently ignore is that the planned economy in the USSR – despite its bureaucratic deformation – produced impressive rates of economic growth and immense progress in education, healthcare, science, etc.

Their Morals and Ours was written during the Moscow Show Trials when thousands of old Bolsheviks and others faced trumped up charges and many were condemned to death accused of being Trotskyists and fascist agents. This was part of Stalin’s consolidation of his rule. Trotsky showed in this text that all those “moralists”, both of the bourgeois type and those within the Labour movement, who claimed that Stalinism was simply a continuation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks could not explain what happened during the Moscow Trials.

Stalin’s execution of thousands up on thousands of genuine revolutionary communists who had given everything for the revolution created a river of blood between himself and all the old Bolsheviks. This shows that Stalin was not the continuation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks but represented a sharp break with that tradition. Trotsky and the Left Opposition, who defended the ideas of Lenin in the USSR, were hunted down, exiled from the country and killed by Stalinist agents. Trotsky ends Their Morals and Ours with a dedication to his son Leon Sedov who was killed by a Stalinist agent while Trotsky was writing the text.

All moralists use some abstract principle that varies according to who is making the appraisal. For a religious person, Darwinists, Marxists and anarchists are all the same because they all accept that life evolved and was not created. For Hitler, Liberalism and Marxism are the same since they don’t believe in the doctrines of “race” and “blood and honour”. For bourgeois democrats, Fascism and Bolshevism are twins because they do not bow down before bourgeois democracy. What all these moralists have in common is that they do not see the underlying material conditions of each situation.

Moralists counterpose the Stalinist degeneration of the USSR, which is a concrete historical reality, to bourgeois democracy as a supra-historic abstraction. They conveniently ignore the fact that bourgeois democracy, precisely because it is merely a means of running the capitalist system, offers nothing but crisis and unemployment. And they also tip-toe round the fact in the same period of the rise of Stalin in the USSR the bourgeoisie in many countries abandoned “democracy” and promoted the rise of Fascism and world war because the working class failed to overthrow capitalism.

Trotsky explains this moral approach to politics, an approach that is also found in the Labour movement and amongst the Left in general, has its class basis amongst the petty bourgeois intellectuals. The political foundation is their impotence and confusion in the face of both reaction and revolution. These ideologues from the middle layers are those who have fallen, or are in danger of falling, between the lines of fire of the two main classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. What they desire is capitalism with a human face. Unfortunately for them, this is now a Utopia.

These people have abandoned all scientific methods of analysis. Most commentators on the left have adopted the same theories as the bourgeoisie, or so-called “common sense”. But as Marx and Engels explained, the dominant ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class. Without a conscious break with these dominant ideas one ends up tail-ending the ruling class, as we see today when all governments, no matter their political complexion, are pursuing the same policies of austerity.

The problem is that this so-called “common sense” does not serve to understand anything, particularly in periods of great changes. Common sense operates on the basis of constants in a world where the only constant is change itself. Dialectics, on the contrary, analyses all phenomena, institutions and established norms in their ascent, development and decay. The dialectical view that morals are subordinate and transient products of the class struggle appears to school of “common sense” as being “amoral”. Common sense states that yesterday tells us what tomorrow will be like. The truth is that in today’s turbulent times tomorrow will not be like yesterday. None of those advocates of “common sense” were able to foresee the present economic crisis or the Arab spring.

“The End justifies the Means”

Faced with such criticism, the “moralists” then point an accusing finger: “Maybe your ideals are not amoral, but Marxists will do anything to reach their goal! You think the end justifies the means!”

Among the many critics of Marxism are to be found the Utilitarians. Their motto is “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” actually means the same as “those means are moral that lead to the common welfare”. Philosophically speaking therefore Utilitarianism is the same as “the end justifies the means”.

And what we must therefore ask these moralists is: what else if not the end should justify the means? What criteria can you establish to decide what to do and not to do? If you say that neither personal nor social ends can justify the means, then you have to seek the criteria outside historical society and the ends raised by its development – if not on Earth, then in Heaven. Trotsky explains how this means that the theory of an eternal moral, a supra-human moral, cannot survive without God in the last resort. The truth is that morality emerges from the development of society; it is bound to what has been necessary at given times.

So nothing else makes sense but that the end justifies the means. But from this we get no answer as to what we may and may not do. The principle “the end justifies the means” raises the question: and what justifies the end? In practical life and in historical movements “end” and “means” swap places constantly. A machine while it is being built is an “end” for production until after it is finished and put in a factory and then it becomes a “means” for new production. In the same way “Democracy” is in some periods an “end” for the class struggle, only to become its “means” for the further development of the class struggle.

“Moral Precepts Obligatory Upon All”

Those who do not limit themselves to resorting to some kind of “God” have to acknowledge that morality is the product of social development, that there is nothing invariable about it, that it serves social interests, that these interests are contradictory and that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.

“But”, asks Trotsky, “do not elementary moral precepts exist, worked out in the development of mankind as a whole and indispensable for the life of every collective body? Undoubtedly such precepts exist but the extent of their action is extremely limited and unstable. Norms ‘obligatory upon all’ become the less forceful the sharper the character assumed by the class struggle. The highest form of the class struggle is civil war which explodes into mid-air all moral ties between the hostile classes.”

In normal conditions everyone can agree that “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. But what if a man has a gun pointed at a child? Can you kill him to save the child? Most people would say yes. If you kill in self defence, you are not convicted by a jury. In Tahrir Square in Egypt was it justified that the masses killed members of Mubarak’s security personnel to defend themselves? If you look at the state in times of war it turns this “thou shalt not kill” into its opposite, “thou shalt kill as many as possible of the enemy.”

As Trotsky states, “The so-called ‘generally recognized’ moral precepts in essence preserve an algebraic, that is, an indeterminate character. They merely express the fact that man, in his individual conduct, is bound by certain common norms that flow from his being a member of society.”

Trotsky explains how in times of peace morality seems to be the same “for all” but that this changes with the sharpening contradictions in society: “During the epoch of capitalistic upsurge especially in the last few decades before the World War these concessions (on secondary questions), at least in relation to the top layers of the proletariat, were of a completely genuine nature. Industry at that time expanded almost uninterruptedly. The prosperity of the civilized nations, partially, too, that of the toiling masses increased. Democracy appeared solid. Workers’ organizations grew. At the same time reformist tendencies deepened. The relations between the classes softened, at least outwardly. Thus certain elementary moral precepts in social relations were established along with the norms of democracy and the habits of class collaboration. The impression was created of an ever more free, more just, and more humane society. The rising line of progress seemed infinite to ‘common sense’.”

This could very well be applied to the period after the Second World War and the last boom leading up to the crisis in 2008!

Trotsky explained how all this was cut across by the outbreak of world war, how all the safety valves of society one after the other exploded:

“The elementary moral precepts seemed even more fragile than the democratic institutions and reformist illusions. Mendacity, slander, bribery, venality, coercion, murder grew to unprecedented dimensions. To a stunned simpleton all these vexations seem a temporary result of war. Actually they are manifestations of imperialist decline. The decay of capitalism denotes the decay of contemporary society with its laws and its morals.”

In the 1930s Trotsky was writing about the decay of society leading to Fascism. Now the working class is much stronger and will have the opportunity to take power many times before Fascism is on the agenda.

In spite of this, even now we see signs of “democratic norms” being broken, for example with the imposing of non-elected technocratic governments in Italy (Monti) and Greece (Papademos). Now we see the workers’ parties openly defending liberal policies. No matter which government you elect they are all forced by the “markets” to pursue the same policies. The masses have no say in all this. “Capitalism with a human democratic face” is only possible when capitalism is booming.

Bolshevik “Amorality”

Trotsky explains how it is not just a question of understanding the materialist method:

“Among the liberals and radicals there are not a few individuals who have assimilated the methods of the materialist interpretation of events and who consider themselves Marxists. This does not hinder them from remaining bourgeois journalists, professors or politicians. A Bolshevik is inconceivable, of course, without the materialist method, in the sphere of morality too. But this method serves him not solely for the interpretation of events but rather for the creation of a revolutionary party of the proletariat. It is impossible to accomplish this task without complete independence from the bourgeoisie and their morality. Yet bourgeois public opinion actually now reigns in full sway over the official workers’ movement.”

What these moralists in the workers’ movement really detest is that we reveal all their hypocrisy: when they support the bombing of Libya or Iraq for “humanitarian” purposes, when they cut welfare claiming they are “saving it”, etc.

The right-wing and reformists within the Labour movement often accuse Marxists of being amoral, because we are organized, because we work in a disciplined manner and they also claim that we do not tell the truth about our aims, and so on and so forth. The fact is that throughout history they have tried to isolate and expel the Marxists from the labour movement. The real reason they do this is that Marxism alone is capable of explaining the crisis of capitalism and, most importantly, of offering a way out. In reality these people are the “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class” (a term Lenin often used to describe those politicians within the labour movement who defend the interests of the capitalist class).

Trotsky writes: “Nevertheless, lying and violence ’in themselves’ warrant condemnation? Of course, even as does the class society which generates them. A society without social contradictions will naturally be a society without lies and violence. However there is no way of building a bridge to that society save by revolutionary, that is, violent means. The revolution itself is a product of class society and of necessity bears its traits. From the point of view of “eternal truths’ revolution is of course “anti-moral”. But this merely means that idealist morality is counter-revolutionary, that is, in the service of the exploiters.

Look at Egypt: what should the masses have done? Stayed at home and accepted Mubarak’s dictatorship? They went onto the streets and fought – thereby ending the brutal dictatorship. Some of the scenes were violent indeed, and the masses knew how to deal with the counter-revolutionary provocateurs. Was this behaviour “moral” or “amoral”? To pose the question thus means disarming the revolution and de facto siding with a brutal regime that killed hundreds on the streets.

Trotsky also raises the question: what is a lie? Is it a lie when the workers do not share their plans for a strike with their boss? Any worker who tells the boss what is being planned is considered a traitor. And what about a soldier who “tells the truth” about his army’s war plans? In such struggles concealing the truth and lying in the face of the enemy is “moral”. To do otherwise would be “amoral”.

The ruling class in fact lies all the time. To justify their war in Iraq, for example, they completely fabricated the evidence for “weapons of mass destruction”. Clearly the likes of the very religious Tony Blair considered it moral to lie to the people he was supposed to be representing! The capitalists also hide their real profits from the public. When how much tax the big companies in Denmark pay was made public, this was met by a hysteric response from big business through their media outlets.

They accuse us Marxists of adhering to the principle of centralist organizations where majority decisions have to be abided by. They claim this discipline goes against the freedom of the individual. Discipline and organization is attacked by the anarchists and similar elements we have encountered in, for example, the Occupy Movement, etc.

What these people ignore is the fact that discipline is not something invented by the Marxists. The fact that it is the majority within any organisation that takes the decisions is presented as “undemocratic” by these people. That is turning the very meaning of democracy on its head. Furthermore, workers understand perfectly well that the struggle against capitalism is a serious business and it is the class struggle that teaches them that discipline is an absolute necessity. Every worker understands the need to have discipline in a strike. Disciplined and collective actions are the methods of the working class. Workers discuss, vote and then the majority decides. Is that the suppression of the rights of the individual? Collective action is the only way the capitalists can be defeated. The workers’ only strength is their unity.

Within the left in Denmark there is much debate about what a revolutionary organization should be like? The anarchists state that it should be a model of the future society. This ignores the fact that a tool does not have to look like the final object you wish to build; it should be the right tool for the job. We need disciplined organization in order to remove this society and build a new one with freedom for all.

The reformist parties, on the other hand, impose a strong discipline, but they use this to stifle workers from taking decisions that are contrary to the wishes of the bureaucracy at the head of the labour movement. What is required is a thoroughly democratic decision-making process that then leads to a majority position being adopted. However, this in and of itself is not enough. What is also required is the scientific socialist ideas of Marxism if the workers are to succeed in the struggle.

In Denmark, for example, the Marxists have been expelled from several of the workers’ parties. But if one looks more closely at the situation one has to ask the question: who decides who has the right to be a part of the workers’ movement? Danish Social Democracy is lead by Helle Thorning, whose government has just launched an attack on student grants and the benefits of the unemployed in order to grant tax concessions to Danish business. In Britain is Ed Miliband pursuing a policy in defence of the interests of the working class?

Most of the leaders of the Labour movement openly defend so-called “liberal” politics – i.e. pro-capitalist policies – and attacks on workers’ rights. We, the Marxists, on the other hand fight to win back the labour movement, its parties and the trade unions, to a programme in defence of the workers’ interests. They expel us because of our struggle to win back the mass organisations to a socialist programme!

What we do is tell the truth and explain things as they really stand and say openly to the workers: this system is rotten to the core; what is needed is to overthrow it and replace it with a socialist society. For that you need to win your organizations back on a socialist programme to defend and fight for your interests. It will not be easy but no one will do it for you and there is no other way.

So what ends are justified?

Capitalism is in an organic crisis. It cannot solve its problems and offers no future for the great majority. At present we see revolutionary waves sweeping across the globe. This leads to a bigger and bigger gap between the “official” morality of capitalist society and the morality of the oppressed. So if the end justifies the means, what then justifies the end? This is the line of demarcation between all those who defend capitalism and the revolutionaries.

As Trotsky points out, “From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man.”

The moralists then respond sarcastically: “so to reach this end all is permissible?”

Trotsky answers, “That is permissible […] which really leads to the liberation of mankind. Since this end can be achieved only through revolution, the liberating morality of the proletariat of necessity is endowed with a revolutionary character.”

“Permissible and necessary are those and only those means, we answer, that unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle.”

This inevitably leads to the understanding that the liberation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. From this it follows that not all means are permissible:

“When we say that the end justifies the means then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the leaders.”

And this applies especially to those “leaders” who try to give the workers the impression that all can be solved by manoeuvres and negotiations in parliament, or in negotiations between bosses and unions.

Trotsky sums this all up in the following manner:

“The liberation of the workers can come only through the workers themselves. There is, therefore, no greater crime than deceiving the masses, palming off defeats as victories, friends as enemies, bribing workers’ leaders, fabricating legends, staging false trials, in a word, doing what the Stalinists do [did].”

Of course this does not give a ready answer to the question as to what is permissible and what is not permissible in each separate case. There can be no such automatic answers. Problems of revolutionary morality are fused with the problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics. The living experience of the movement aided by the clarification of theory provides the correct answer to these problems.

Morality for us is that which raises the workers’ understanding of the need for a revolutionary socialist transformation of society, so we can put an end to poverty, hunger and wars, which are the really “immoral” aspects of society today, especially where we have the means, productive, economic, scientific and technological, to put an end to all this barbarism of capitalism.

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