- Capitalism and Alternatives -

Marxist 'Morality'

Posted by: Barry Stoller on February 14, 19100 at 11:33:13:

Chuck recently mentioned a great Trotsky essay on morals, specifically addressed to those who believe in absolute morals.

The Marxist view on morals is that morals, like all ideology, is historically and materially determined by the social relations attendant upon the mode of production prevalent. 'The ideas of the ruling class are in very epoch the ruling ideas.' What, precisely, is ideology? The best description I ever heard was: ideology is the presentation of the social relations of an epoch as the natural, inviolable, and eternal laws governing ALL social relations.

That said, there are those who nevertheless insist that morality is absolute. Their proof?


Supra-class morality inevitably leads to the acknowledgment of a special substance, of a 'moral sense,' 'conscience,' some kind of absolute which is nothing more than the philosophic-cowardly pseudonym for god. Independent of 'ends,' that is, of society, morality, whether we deduce it from eternal truths or from the 'nature of man,' proves in the end to be a form of 'natural theology.' Heaven remains the only fortified position for military operations against dialectic materialism.

In short: whoever claims that such-and-such is the absolute morality governing all people in all places in all times must request that their claim be taken on faith. This may work with illiterate peasants, it won't work with Marxists. Either 'absolute morality' can be empirically defended, or it cannot.

Morality changes with the circumstances it finds itself in. It is proper to love thy neighbor is thy neighbor is lovable; it's OK to make an exception and shoot thy neighbor if thy neighbor turns out to be Charlie Manson. This, essentially, is the line pitched to people in every war.

Trotsky, again:

A slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains---let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!

Above all, circumstances change when the class character of 'morality' is considered.

To one class, private ownership of the means of production is a right backed up by morality (and the billy club of the cop). To another, public ownership of the means of production is a right backed up by morality (and the billy club of the cop). Who is to say what a 'universal right' is? Probably the cop (who represents his employer, whether it's J.P. Getty or the proletariat unified as a class).

Do the ends justify the means?

Trotsky considered whether or not anything could be considered moral---and answering ONLY for the proletariat he identified himself with, concluded:

Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which 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. Precisely from this it flows 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.' Primarily and irreconcilably, revolutionary morality rejects servility in relation to the bourgeoisie and haughtiness in relation to the toilers, that is, those characteristics in which petty bourgeois pedants and moralists are thoroughly steeped.

Not amorality, but PROLETARIAN morality.

Note: I recently suggested to NJ---who is a religious man---that I could accept the idea of an absolute morality, a morality out of the hands of people, so long as it remained out of the sight of people. Meaning: so long as no one attempted to claim that they had a special insight into absolute morality, hence special rights to interpret it for others, then it must practically be accepted that absolute morality (whatever that is) is practically DEFINED historically and materially by the social relations attendant upon the mode of production prevalent. Which is the same thing, only through a Wittengensteinian detour.

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