ETHICS AND SOCIALISM

 

by
J. C. MARIATEGUI
 From Defensa del Marxismo (1930)
The following translation into English and introduction were first published in Tricontinental, Theoretical Organ of the
Executive Secretariat of the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America,
No. 3, November-December 1967, pp. 20-7

Transcribed for marxists.org by George Georges, July 2010

 

 

"Revolution is, unfortunately, not made with fastings. Revolutionaries from all parts of the world must choose between being the victims of violence or using it. If one does not wish to see one's spirit and one's intelligence serving brute force, one must forcibly resolve to put brute force under the subservience of intelligence and the spirit." The author of this passage, written more than forty years ago, was Jose Carlos Mariátegui, founder of the Peruvian Communist Party, a physically feeble man of unstable health who combined a powerful, cold and lucid intelligence with an exquisite artistic sensitiveness and an incorruptible revolutionary morale. His short life, ended before he was thirty-five, elapsed between long periods of hospitalization and poverty. Jail and the continuous humiliations he suffered, did not deter him from accomplishing his life's work, which, given the circumstances he had to cope with, does not cease to stimulate today more and more amazement, as well as the increased attention and admiration of revolutionaries the world over. Suffering from the time he was seven years old from an incipient physical disability which denied him a normal childhood, and when called upon, helping his mother out by working as proofreader in a publishing house, his career as a revolutionary writer began when an army man cowardly attacked him for the ideas he expressed in a newspaper article.

The sum total of Mariátegui's work constitutes an ideological struggle against reformism, first and foremost. His work Defense of Marxism is imbued with this spirit, and the very founding of the Peruvian Communist Party denounces "domesticated socialism": "The ideology we adopt," states Mariátegui in his thesis of affiliation with the Third Internationale, "is that of militant revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, a doctrine which we wholly and unreservedly adhere to in its philosophical, political and socio-economic aspects. The methods we uphold are those of orthodox revolutionary socialism. We not only rebuke in all their forms the methods and tendencies of the Second Internationale, but oppose them actively." In this document he did no more than ratify before the world what he had previously made known in a magazine: "The political sector with which I can never come to terms is the other one: that of mediocre reformism, of domesticated socialism, of Pharisaical democracy. Moreover, if the revolution demands violence, authority, discipline, I am all for violence, authority, discipline. I accept them in block form, with all their horrors, without any cowardly reserves."

Between 1919 and 1923 Mariátegui made a tour of Europe. It was in Italy where his thought ripened and became richer. In addition to his admiration for the theorist of violence, the revolutionary trade-unionist George Sorel, there was his passion for Gobetti, Labriola, and he found in Croce a friend with whom he could enter into controversy. Mariategui was an eyewitness to the great social upheavals which foreshadowed the triumph of Nazism and the reformist preachings of class collaborationism. On his return to Peru, in a work on the world crisis and on the role that the Peruvian proletariat ought to play in it, he wrote: "..The proletarian forces are divided in two great groupings: reformists and revolutionaries.

"There is the faction of those who want to bring about socialism by collaborating politically with the bourgeoisie; and the faction of those who want to bring about socialism by conquering for the proletariat in its entirety political power." To this global crisis, Mariátegui answered in a vein both aggressive and critical: "I am of the same opinion as those who believe that humanity is going through a revolutionary period. And I am convinced of the imminent decline of all the social-democratic theses, of all the reformist theses and of all the evolutionist theses." In another article, he denounced the impotence of reformism to avoid war: "The thought of Lasallean social-democracy guided the Second Internationale; that is why it proved itself impotent before war. Its leaders and sectional corps had become accustomed to a reformist and democratic attitude and resistance to war demanded a revolutionary attitude."

Defense of Marxism (a work from which we publish here one of its most interesting chapters) constitutes a rebuttal of Beyond Marxism by the Belgian revisionist Henri de Man, and of other social-democratic theorists, such as Vandervelde, a rebuttal which arises from revolutionary tenets and from practical positions. Mariátegui, who is brought to task in a controversy over principles, is equally removed from all sectarian and dogmatic standpoints, because he understood that Marxism was never "a set of principles embodying rigid consequences, similar in all historical climes and all social latitudes." "We must strip ourselves radically of all the old dogmatisms," he wrote, "of all the discredited prejudices and archaic superstitions." It is the correct interpretation of Marxist theory that makes him state directly: "Marx is not present in spirit in all his so-called disciples and heirs. Those who have carried on his ideas are not the pedantic German professors of the Marxist theory of value and surplus value, incapable themselves of making any contribution to the doctrine, devoted only to fixing limitations and labels to it; it has rather been the revolutionaries, slandered as heretics..." A deplorable article by Mirochevsky, published in Dialéctica, in which Mariátegui is grossly characterized as a petty bourgeois populist,was later impugned by the articles on Mariátegui of Semionov and Shulgovski, both of whom see the great Peruvian Marxist in a totally different light. But even today there are people interested in misrepresenting his political thoughts and actions to the point of belittling his significance from the Liberation Army spokesman he is to that of a sort of moralizing Salvation Army sermonizer. With each passing day, though, this task grows more difficult.

In this chapter, "Ethics and Socialism," transcribed from his work Defense of Marxism, Mariétegui comes to grips with revolutionary ethics, with the ethics of socialism. For the great Peruvian, Marxist revolutionary ethics "does not emerge mechanically from economic interests; it is formed in the class struggle, carried on in a heroic frame of mind, with passionate willpower." And further on, he adds: "The worker who is indifferent to the class struggle, who derives satisfaction from his material well-being and, generally speaking, from his lot in life, will be able to attain a mediocre bourgeois moral standard, but will never be able to raise himself to the level of socialist ethics."

Some of Mariátegui's works remain unpublished, but those that have been published suffice to make of him one of the most noteworthy Marxists of our time.

*    *    *    *    *

The charges that have been brought to bear against Marxism for its attributed unethicality, for its materialistic motives, for the sarcasm with which Marx and Engels deal with bourgeois ethics in their pages, are not new. Neo-revisionist critique does not say, as regards this matter, one single thing which socialist Utopians and all the run of the mill Pharisaical socialists have not said beforehand. But Marx's reinstatement, from the standpoint of ethics, has also been effected by Benedetto Croce —being one of the most fully recognized representatives of idealist philosophy, his judgments will seem to all concerned to carry more weight than any Jesuitic regret over the petty bourgeois mentality. In one of his first essays on historical materialism, confusing the thesis of the lack of ethics inherent in Marxism, Croce wrote the following:

"This current has been principally determined by the necessity in which Marx and Engels found themselves, before the various strains of socialist Utopians, of stating that the so-called social question is not a moral question (i. e., according to how it should be interpreted, this question will not be solved by preachings or by moral means), as well as by their severe criticism of class hypocrisy and ideology. It has also been nurtured, as far as I can see, by the Hegelian origin of the thoughts of Marx and Engels for it is known that in Hegelian philosophy ethics loses the rigidity which Kant gave it and which Herbart was later to lend support to. And, finally, the term "materialism" does not surrender in this connection a shred of efficacy, seeing that the mere term brings immediately to mind the full implications of what is meant by "interest" and "pleasure." But it is evident that the ideality and absoluteness of ethics, in the philosophical sense of such words, are necessary assumptions of socialism. Isn't the interest that drives us to create the concept of surplus value a moral or social interest, or whatever term might be used for defining it? In the sphere of pure economic science can one speak of the theory of surplus value? Doesn't the proletariat sell its productive capacity for what it's worth, given its situation in present day society? And, without this moral assumption, how can the tone of violent indignation and bitter sarcasm, along with Marx's political actions, contained in every page of Das Kapital, be accounted for?" (Materialismo Storico ed Economia Marxistica).

I have previously had occasion to set forth this passage from Croce, which led me, in turn, to quote some phrases by Unamuno, in his work entitled The Agony of Christianity (La agonía del cristianismo) and which consequently made me the recipient of a letter by Unamuno himself, who wrote me therein that Marx was more truly a prophet than a professor.

On more than one occasion Croce has quoted verbatim the passage referred to above. One of his critical conclusions on this subject la precisely "the negation of the intrinsic amorality or of the anti-ethicality of Marxism." And, In this same text, he wonders why no one "has thought of calling Marx, in the way of extending him a further honor, the Machiavelli of the proletariat," a fact which can be thoroughly and amply explained in the light of the conceptions he formulates in his defense of the author of The Prince, who was no less persecuted by regrets of which posterity made him the victim. On the subject of Machiavelli, Croce has on that he "discloses the necessity and autonomy of politics, which is beyond moral good and and the laws which it would be of no consequence at all to rebel against, which are immune to sort of exorcism and which cannot be made to take leave of the world with the aid of holy water."

In Croce's opinion Machiavelli gives evidence of being of "a divided mind and spirit on politics, of the autonomy of which he has become aware, and he now thinks of it as a corrupting influence for compelling him to sully his hands in dealing with basely ignorant people, and now as a sublime art with which to found and uphold that great institution, the State" (Elementi di politica). The similarity between these two cases has been clearly pointed out by Croce in the following terms:

"A case, in some respects analogous to that around which the discussions on Marxian ethics have centered, is the one having to do with the traditional critique on the ethics of Machiavelli; a critique which was brought to fruition by De Sanctis (in the chapter concerning Machiavelli in his Storia della litteratura), but a critique which nevertheless recurs quite systematically, and in a work by Professor Villari, one reads that Machiavelli's great imperfection is to be found in the fact that he did not propound the moral question. And I have often asked myself if Machiavelli was bound by contract or in any way obliged to deal with every sort of question, including those in which he took no interest and on which he had nothing to say. It would be tantamount to reproof of those who study chemistry for not delving into the metaphysical principles of matter."

The ethical function of socialism —in regard to which the hurried and summary extravaganzas of Marxists such as Lafargue, no doubt make for error— should be sought out, not in highfalutin decalogues nor in philosophical speculations, which in no way constitute a necessity in the formulation of Marxian theory, but in creating a morale for the producers by the same process of the anti-capitalist struggle.

"Vainly," Kautsky has said "have the English workers been made the object of moral preachings, of a loftier conception of life, of feelings underlying nobler deeds. The ethics of the proletariat derives from its revolutionary aspirations; from them will it be endowed with more strength and elevation of purpose. That which has saved the proletariat from debasement is the idea of revolution."

Sorel adds that for Kautsky ethics is always subordinated to the idea of the sublime, and though he disagrees with many official Marxists, who carried to extremes their paradoxes and jokes on the moralists, he nonetheless, concurs in that "Marxists had particular reasons for showing lack of confidence on all that which touched upon ethics; the propagandists of social reforms, the Utopians and the democrats had so repeatedly and misleadingly recurred to the concept of Justice that no one could be denied the right of looking upon all dissertations to this effect as a rhetorical exercise or as a sophistry, destined to lead astray those who were involved in the labor movement."

One can ascribe to the influence of Sorel's thought Edward Berth's apologia on this ethical function of socialism.

"Daniel Halevy," states Bert "seems to believe that the exaltation of the producer is bound to harm the man; he attributes to me a completely American enthusiasm for an industrial civilization But it will not be thus; the life of the free spirit is as dear to me as it is to him, and I am far from believing that in the world there is nothing else save production. It is always, in the end, the old charge levelled against the Marxists, who are held responsible for being both morally and metaphysically, materialists. Nothing could be more false; historical materialism does not impede in any way whatsoever the highest development of what Hegel calls the free or absolute spirit; quite the contrary, it is its preliminary condition. And our hope is, precisely, that in a society which rests on an ample economic base, made up by a federation of shops where free workers would be inspired by a spirited enthusiasm for production, art, religion and philosophy would in turn be given a prodigious impulse and the frantic and ardent rhythm resulting from it would simply skyrocket."

Luc Dartin's sagacity, sharpened by a finely wrought characteristically French irony, throws light on this religious-like ascendancy pervading Marxism, a phenomenon which conforms to principles inherent in the constitution of the first socialist country in the world. Historically it had already been proven by the socialist struggles of the West, that the sublime, such as the proletariat conceives of it, is not an intellectual utopia nor a propagandistic hypothesis.

When Henri de Man, demanding from socialism an ethical content, tries to demonstrate that class interest can not of itself become a sufficiently potent motor of the new order, he does not in any way go "beyond Marxism," nor does he make amends for things which have not already been pointed out by revolutionary criticism. His revisionism attacks revisionistic trade-unionism, in the practice of which class interest is content with the satisfaction of limited material aspirations. An ethics of producers, as is conceived by Sorel and Kautsky, does not emerge mechanically from economic interest, it is formed in the class struggle, engaged in with heroic disposition, with passionate will power. It is absurd to look for the ethical sentiments of socialism in those trade-unions which have fallen under the influence of the bourgeoisie — in which a domesticated bureaucracy has become enervated in its class consciousness — or in the parliamentary groups, spiritually assimilated by the class enemy, regardless of the fact of their combative stand before it as witnessed by their speeches and motions. Henri de Man expresses something which is perfectly superfluous and beside the point when he states: "The class interest doesn't explain everything. It does not create ethical motives." These avowals may impress a certain breed of nineteenth century intellectuals, whom, glaringly ignoring Marxist thought, glaringly ignoring the history of the class struggle, facilely imagine, as does Henri de Man, that they can surmount the limits of the Marxian school of thought. The ethics of socialism is formed in the class struggle. If the proletariat is to comply in its moral progress with its historical mission it becomes necessary for it to acquire beforehand a conscienciousness of its class interests; but in itself, class interest does not suffice. Long before Henri de Man, the Marxists have understood and felt this perfectly. Therein, precisely, arise their stalwart criticisms against lubberly reformism. "Without revolutionary theory, there is no revolutionary action," Lenin used to repeat, referring to the yellow-streaked tendency to forget historical finality in order to pay attention only to hourly circumstances.

The struggle for socialism instills in workers which take part in it extreme energy and absolute conviction along with an asceticism that forcibly cancels and makes utterly ridiculous any charge levelled against them having to do with their materialistic creed, and formulated on behalf of a theorizing and philosophical ethics. Luc Durtain, after visiting a Soviet school, asked whether he couldn't find in Russia a lay school, to such an extent did he regard of a religious tenor Marxist education. The materialist, if it be one who practices and is religiously devoted to his convictions, can only be distinguished from the idealist by a convention of language (Unamuno, touching upon another aspect of the opposition between idealism and materialism, states that "since what is matter to us is no more than an idea, materialism is idealism").

The worker who is indifferent to the class struggle, who derives satisfaction from his material well-being and generally speaking, from his lot in life, will be able to attain a mediocre bourgeois moral standard, but will never be able to raise himself to the level of socialist ethics. And it is preposterous to think that Marx ever advocated, or ever wanted to separate the worker from his source of livelihood, or ever wanted to deprive him of all that which binds him to his work, so that the class struggle might take hold of him more firmly, more completely. This conjecture is only conceivable in those who abide by far-fetched Marxist speculations, as Lafargue, the apologist of the right, as the individual to idleness was wont to do.

The mill, the factory, act on the worker's mind and soul. The union, the class struggle, continue and complete the worker's educational process.

"The factory," Gobetti points out, "offers the precise vision of the coexistence of the social interests: the solidarity of labor. The individual grows accustomed to feeling himself part of the productive process, an indispensable as well as an insufficient part. Here we have the most perfect school of pride and humility. I will never forget the first impression the workers gave me, when I undertook a visit to the Fiat furnaces, one of the few English-like modern capitalistic enterprises in Italy. I felt in those workers a self-possessed attitude, an unassuming assertiveness, a contempt for every manner of dilettantism. Whomever lives in a factory possesses the dignity of work, the willingness for making sacrifices and the habit of resisting fatigue. A way of life severely founded on a sense of tolerance and interdependence which induces punctuality, strictness and perseverance in the worker. These virtues of capitalism are offset by an almost bleak asceticism; whereas, on the other hand, selfrestrained suffering nourishes, when exasperation sets in, the courage to fight and the instinct for taking a defensive stand politically. English adultness, the capacity for believing in precise ideologies, of undergoing perils in order to make them prevail, the unbending will power of carrying forward with dignity the political struggle, are born of this apprenticeship, the significant implications of which are ushering in the greatest revolution since the rise of Christianity."

In this severe environment of persistency, of effort, of tenacity, the energies of European socialism have been forged, which, even in those countries where parliamentary reformism holds a big sway over the masses, offer Latin Americans an admirable example of continuity and duration. In different Latin American countries the socialist parties and the trade-union members have suffered a hundred defeats. However, each new year the elections, protest movements, any rally whatever, either of an ordinary or extraordinary character, will always find these masses greater in number and more obstinate. Renan recognized that which was mystical and religious in such a social creed. Quite justifiably Labriola praised German socialism:

"This truly new and imposing case of social pedagogy, i.e., that in such great numbers of workers and middle class sectors a new conscience should take shape, in which equally coincide a guiding perception of the economic circumstance — a stimulant conducive to stepping up the struggle — and socialist propaganda, understood as the goal and arriving point."

If socialism should not be achieved as a social order, this formidable edifying and educational accomplishment would prove more than enough to justify it in history. The previously quoted passage from de Man admits this postulation when he states, though with a different intention, that "the essential thing in socialism is the struggle in its behalf," a phrase which is very much reminiscent of those in which Bernstein advised the socialists to busy themselves primarily with the movement and not with the movement's results, by which, according to Sorel, the revisionist leader expressed a much more philosophical meaning than what he himself might have suspected. De Man does not ignore the pedagogical and spiritual function of the trade-union, though his own experience was inherently and mediocrely social-democratic.

"The trade-union organizations," he observes, "contribute in a much greater measure than the majority of the workers suppose, and almost all of the employers, to binding together more vigorously the ties between the workers and their regular chores. They obtain this result almost without their knowing it, by trying to keep up qualification and efficiency and by developing industrial education, by organizing the right the workers have to union inspection and applying democratic norms to shop discipline by the system of delegates and sections, etc. In so doing, the union renders the worker a service a great deal less problematical, considering him a citizen of a future city, rather than seeking the remedy in the disappearance of all the psychological relations between the worker and the environment of the shop."

But the Belgian neo-revisionist, notwithstanding his idealistic protestations, discovers the advantage and merit of all this in the increasing attachment of the worker to his material well-being and in the measure in which the latter factor makes a Philistine of him. Paradoxes of petit-bourgeois idealism!

 



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