Works of Joseph Dietzgen 1875

Ethics of Social-Democracy
Two Sermons

Source: Philosophical Essays by Joseph Dietzgen, published by Charles H. Kerr 1917, Edited by Eugene Dietzgen and Joseph Dietzgen Jr., translated by M. Beer and Th. Rothstein;
First Published: Volksstaat, 1875;
Transcribed: Andy Blunden.
Proofread: Andy Carloff, 2010


Comrades and Friends:

It is the desire of our party to realize that which the enlightened minds of all ages and nations wanted to realize: truth and justice. We do not want the truth and justice of the clergy. Ours is the material, empirical truth of applied science which we want first to know and then to practice. Impelled by the necessity of realizing a life worth living, we are interested in various kinds of truth, and especially also in that which is true justice, or in the “moral world.”

The world cannot exist without morality and order, not because, as the parson has it, they came from heaven, or that they were, according to professorial wisdom, prescribed by some eternal code of laws, but because they are a universal, palpable need. In one of my last sermons I have already discussed the matter how we international social-democrats are trying to systematically demonstrate all our thoughts by real or experimental facts. Let us in our present disquisition of morality apply “our system” and see how it works. Also the ethical law cannot lay claim to more consideration and validity than is warranted by its material basis.

The animals, apes or rabbits, have neither shame nor morality, neither fidelity nor faith. At least, their moral degree equals naught. The Caffirs have but little of it, our bourgeois class slightly more, and it is left to the socialists to teach them what is really just. In other words: morality is the result of the historic development, it is a product of evolution. It has its origin in the social instincts of the human race, in the material necessity of social life. Seeing that the ideals of social democracy are one and all directed towards a higher order of social life, they must necessarily be moral ideals.

As long as mankind has been grouped in clans, hordes, tribes, nations and states, some kind of ‘order and laws’ have been necessary. But we cannot tell beforehand what those laws and institutions contain, or in other words, what conduct is to be regarded as just and equitable, for that depends on the conditions in which determinate social organization lives. The most important conditions are those of production of material goods. They decide, in the last resort, what is to be regarded as just and equitable. But inasmuch as they are not unchangeable and abiding, the laws of morality cannot be eternal. Indeed, they change with the changes in political economy. The morality and laws of hunters, shepherds, knights and bourgeois differ greatly from each other. As far as political economy is based on small private means of production, the old saying holds good:

“Remember hell and you are bless'd.
What’s not your own let smartly rest!'

To-day private economy has reached its climax; the administrators of the national wealth are ardent individualists. Private property is the highest ideal; its whole mechanism, administrative and legal, constitutes the “moral world”. What has until now been considered as moral and just is rapidly fading away. Honesty, uprightness, integrity, family discipline, diligence and thrift are virtues of the lower middle class, of respectable peasants, artisans, tradespeople, who are trying to get some legacy and to perserve it, or to carry on their little business in the way their forefathers did. Modern capital with its new instruments of production is slowly crowding out all those classes and their moral conceptions. People who get rich in one night, or who carry on machine bakeries, have a different moral standard from those who earn an honest dollar or two a day, or who knead the dough in the sweat of their brow. We don’t know to-day whether five, five and twenty, or five hundred per cent. are “honest earnings” or not. Our pillars of society just manage to escape penal servitude and our state attorneys are getting corrupt. The capitalist economy has a disintegrating effect upon morality and property. Our higher classes, like the Turks, buy themselves as many women as their income permits. Polygamy and the keeping of mistresses have become the custom, the ethos, and are an ethical fact. Indeed, free love is not a whit less moral than Christian monogamy. But the reason why we object to polygamy does not lie in the great variety of one’s love-making, but in the venality of the women, in the degradation of the human being and in the disgraceful rule of Mammon.

Morality in human evolution is similar to matter in natural evolution: the essence is abiding, the forms are fleeting.

“A great part of our lower classes,” writes Treitschke, “have become in matters of dress and in several other external things, more like the middle classes, but in their sense of duty and honor they are farther than ever from the educated classes.” But that “great part of the lower classes” are not only aiming at widening the ethical gulf between themselves and the other classes, they are also at work to acquire different philosophical conceptions. The religious conception of knaves and fools is selfish enough to mistake its own interests for those of the community. The ruling classes have always and everywhere shown the disposition to consider their own selfish morality as the general ethical law and have tried to impose it as such upon the people. Socialists are not likely to be caught by such priestly snares. As far back as 1848 our “Communist Manifesto” declared: “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” Now Social-democracy rebels against all class-rule and against all ruling conceptions of duty, honor and culture. We quite admit that, despite all historical changes, there have always been officers and privates. “And so will it be forever,” say the officers. But the privates have their own views about that; they cannot fail to notice that in the period which has passed since the warrior chiefs, the patriarchs, Caesars and knights, to the present captains of industry, the people have become more and more self-conscious and independent; they find that there is such a thing as progressive development of history and arrive quite naturally at the reasonable conclusion to cut the rope which Treitschke, Sybel, etc., have laid down as the “foundation of society.” The professors are undoubtedly right in saying that domination was heretofore a necessary evil or a fact justified by reason. But also human progress towards freedom is an undeniable fact. To our rulers, however, the lesson of history does not consist in freedom, but in dominion. They are only concerned with the question whether the officers will remain forever or whether they will have to go. We social-democrats boldly assert that they will have to go overboard in order that morality may prevail. We assert, furthermore, that the revolution of the present “moral world” is a necessary act of true morality. Thus our views of morality differ greatly from those of the ethical braggarts.

And now I should like to explain to you, dear comrades, in words as concise as possible in what the real essence of morality consists. Guided by our dialectic-materialist conception and method, we look first, as usual in all our researches, for the material, also in this case for the ethical material, making use hereby of the terminology of every-day language. True peaches are all those which people usually call peaches. There are many kinds of them, as of morality. There it is a moral law to slaughter the enemy, to fry and eat him; here, on the contrary, the moral law commands to love the enemy and do good to him. Be a crafty rascal, says the Spartan law; sanctify property, pay the debts, commands the bourgeois. In view of such contradictions how are we to pull the sparks of truth out of the fire? Evidently by extracting the general out of the diversity, by finding what it is that has constituted the moral and just under all conditions. It cannot consist in something particular, but in the general in the abstraction of the whole moral material. To find such a rule it is therefore necessary to inquire into a sufficient quantity of moral facts; in other words, we must use the inductive method. By means of this method we find that the moral world generally consists of the considerations dictated by the social need of a given human organization. Then we find the undeniable fact that that social necessity develops with the progress of productive forces civilization, that the social instinct of man grown has that human association becomes broader and deeper, and that morality becomes more moral. Even Christian morality demands that the limited brotherly feeling of the clan, horde, nation and state shall expand into international brotherhood. But its inordinate religious spirit, its admixture of hypocrisy and foolery, prevented the ideal from being realized. It is economic materialism only, it is but the communistic re-construction of society on the basis of material work, which will bring about the true association of men. Only from the abolition of class-rule, from the transformation of the selfish capitalistic organizations into co-operative instruments of production will issue the true brotherhood of man, the true morality and justice.

No divine oracle, no inner voice or pure deduction from the brain shall teach us moral truth or any other truth. That ideological way leads only to an insipid hankering after a supernatural, unchanging and unchangeable truth. A clear scientific result can only be won by induction; it is always based on experimental and verifiable facts; in our present case, on the established fact, that men need and serve each other. That what is right to one person is equitable to another one is as certain as that men need one another. With the growth of the necessity for mutual service among men, their association becomes more extensive and intensive, their intercourse more considerate, and their morality attains to a higher and truer standard. Social-democracy is thus quite aware that man is limited by the nature of things. But having recognized the general, or the so-called true essence of morality, we refuse to be mystified by those who want to palm off a particular phenomenon or form for the general essence of morality. Whether people marry or live in free-love, whether private property is sacred or wicked, whether revenge is permitted or prohibited, are customs which may be qualified as moral or immoral in the same measure as they promote or hinder human progress. And with social-democrats, human evolution is no mere ideological drivel or spiritual perfection for which there is no material test and which is therefore exposed to the wildest interpretations. With us, human progress means, as often stated, the growing control of man over nature to serve his needs. In view of that great purpose, religion, art, science and morality are simply helpmates. I repeat: the narrower or wider, the looser or closer state of social aggregation changes the law of morality. The higher or lower grade of morality is measured by the degree of social interdependence. Yet, the mere knowledge of the moral law is not sufficient to be able to make use of it in practice; the general conditions must be ripe for it. Theoretically we may easily grasp the highest degree of morality; in practice, however, things go through their historical stages. The customs of the barbarians must pass before we attain to higher ones. Where people live by hunting and fishing, there the sense of brotherhood of man cannot be as developed as where the proletarians of all countries are striving for unity.

That “all men are brothers”and that “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” was well known before Christ. That thy neighbor meant any human being who most urgently needed help was likewise recognized several thousand years ago, it was turned into a dogma and hedged round with divine blessings and cursings. But that does not prevent our educated believers from maintaining in commerce and on the pulpit the diametrically opposed proposition: “Every man for himself.”

Religious truth is a fantastic ideology. According to it love of humanity is based on the belief in God and on freedom of will. And what is the result of it? The war of classes and of nations. We want to follow the opposite way and to establish eternal peace on a brotherly organization of economics. As in family life, where the man tills the soil, the woman cooks its produce and the children gather firewood, domestic harmony is based on domestic economy, and spiritual peace on material cooperation, so will love of humanity only be realized when the production of material goods will be socialized. Nature has undoubtedly implanted in our hearts a yearning for brotherhood. But the heart is a very unreliable compass, and even will and knowledge, as all ideological factors in general, are not to be trusted as guides if they are without any material basis. Else it would be quite incomprehensible why there is so little love of humanity among the ruling classes. If they have their pockets full of dollars they will surely help their destitute brother with a few cents. But can we call that loving kindness? However, it is not love nor help which is the guiding rule of our time, but hammer or anvil. In reality it is thus: who does not want to be a servant must try to become a master. Under such conditions it is idle to hope that people will sacrifice realities for ideal precepts. We are not sentimental enough to expect such things. Though we use moral arguments in our struggle against the bourgeois, we do all we can to stimulate our class consciousness. We preach eternal peace and stimulate the class struggle. We want to abolish all domination by establishing our own domination. These contradictions appear to our scholars and professors too scholarly. But already my grandmother knew that those who make every day Sunday have no Sunday, that is, where all govern nobody governs. When a handful of people now control all the means of production, then their rule is a curse to humanity. When however the working class overcomes their oppressors, wrests from them their power and takes over the administration of the commonwealth, then all class rule ceases and democratic rule begins. The working class is but nominally a class, in reality they are the people whose rule is no domination but a morally, that is, socially justified regime.

The bourgeois class are fantastic in theory, but in practice they are quite sober and provident moralists without any exaggerated notion of benevolence. Their practical morality is adapted to circumstances. That is as it ought to be, and we shall follow their example. But we reject their queer theories according to which morality is an idea which they believe to have received from some lofty regions. In their opinion this wicked world ought to be shaped after that idea. Here our ways separate. We conceive the real world with its human history as the living material, out of which we consciously produce the abstract idea of morality, the ideal morality. At the same time social-democracy is at work to realize the ideal of brotherhood by a social reconstruction of political economy.

Ideas, we again repeat that cornerstone of our philosophy, must be consciously based on experimental material, they must be won by induction if we desire to be clear about their meaning and import. And that applies to moral and political ideas no less than to scientific ideas. From the religious standpoint, the world is a machine which must have its mechanic. Here things are to be conceived as having their origin in the idea, as having sprung from the divine idea. The ideas are according to that a kind of transcendental matrix. Nowadays, however, sensible men are quite aware that the ideas of the vegetable and animal kingdom were not the models after which those objects were made, but, on the contrary, that the ideas are mental abstractions of those objects. Quite in the same manner we have to rid the ethical idea of its transcendentalism. Ideas are notions. Notions may arbitrarily be conceived in a narrower or wider sense. The notion of nature embraces the whole cosmos; the notion of organic embraces but a part of nature; the notion of plant or animal a part of organic, etc. With our ideas we embrace arbitrarily a smaller or larger part of the world wide sphere of experience. It is the nature of the idea to be arbitrarily conceived in a narrower or wider sense. The idea of animal kingdom may include animals which may be regarded as plants and, on the other hand, also men who may, perhaps, object to such a classification. The truth is that ideas cannot be strictly enclosed within their seeming boundaries. And so it is with moral ideas, their limits cannot be clearly marked. There are actions which are of less concern to society than to the person who performs them, yet we cannot deny them a certain moral value, as for instance cleanliness, temperance, etc. An eminently moral activity is the labor of the scholar, that drives him over ocean and deserts to face danger and privation, and to suffer and die in search of truth. Yet we call all these actions virtue and morality, because they have a collective or social value, which proves the correctness of our definition of morality.

In conclusion, I should like to reply to one objection: If morality has no divine origin, but is a bodily instinct, why should those be responsible who are deficient in that instinct and therefore commit crimes against the social order? Pray, remember, my friends, that the social sense is also a product of evolution; it may be missing or stunted in the ignorant and uneducated, who must therefore be taught by humanized disciplinary means.

In the eyes of our opponents we socialists are “materialists” – that is, people without enthusiasm for ideals who are dull-witted and only like to hear about eating and drinking – or who care only about matters which can be weighed and measured. In order to abuse us they give to materialism a narrow and disreputable definition. To such an artful idealism we oppose moral truth, that is, an idea or ideal which has either become flesh or is on the point of becoming flesh. Where in heaven or on earth or anywhere else is there an ideal which is as truly reasonable, as moral and sublime as the idea of international social-democracy? Here the word of Christian love is going to be materialized. The lamentable brothers in Christo shall become brothers indeed, and in the struggle for transforming the religious vale of tears into a real state of the people. Amen.


Dear Comrades and Friends:

Before we proceed with our discussion on morality I should like to sum up in a few words the essence of the foregoing chapter. We have found that different stages of human evolution have different moral laws, and even so contradictory ones that virtue is in one place what is vice in another. The ethical doctrines disagree as much as the religious denominations. Each of them claims to be the only true and genuine one. And in order to arrive at an undisputed view on a much disputed subject we followed the same course by which natural science arrives at its valid conclusions. We accepted as moral everything which is generally regarded as such and searched as Humboldt advises, in the variety of facts for mental unity. We have found that the various ethical codes are all at one in calling that moral which is conducive to a harmonious social conduct. Now, everybody knows, that people do not stand still like mountains, but meet each other and move ahead with one another. They also progress in their social relations. Society grows by degrees in volume and; interdependence. The power and development of men grows in the same degree as their social relations become more intimate, as their sense of solidarity gains in strength and the more they consciously advance their personal well-being by furthering that of the whole community. The principle of morality is the principle of human association, and the principle of human association is progress. Social-democracy is nothing else, and desires nothing else, but social and co-operative progress, and that is the true moral perfection.

One cannot too often repeat the fact, and you, comrades, are quite aware of it, how shamefully certain words are abused, especially “morality” and “progress.” The so-called progressives, who are crafty and cowardly enough to dabble all their life in politics and to ignore all social evils, have long been regarded by us as part and parcel of the “reactionary mass.” Progress of that kind is just the opposite to morality. By calling retrogression “progress,” and anti-social selfishness “morality,” they corrupt the language and notions of the people. And they don’t do it unconsciously either. It is a part of a deep scheme laid with deliberation by wicked immorality. Whenever morality demands freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of press, etc., or whenever human evolution demands any other concession, you will soon find certain people busy with castrating these ideals and pawning such gags, under the name of freedom, off on the public. Democracy wants universal suffrage, but some Napoleon or Bismarck, if he finds it necessary to accede to the democratic request, takes the sting out of it and presents a harmless toy to the masses. Such have always and everywhere been the ways by which the nations are misled. It is therefore necessary for social-democracy to know that words are but names for ideas and that ideas have a flexible meaning (in proportion to the scope, interrelation, time and place of the things they are based upon. Editor). The usual misunderstandings of this logical chapter are taken advantage of by our oppressors to juggle with words, ideas and things and to delude the people. Else it would be quite incomprehensible how such a natural thing as morality can be presented by our academic quacks as a metaphysical wonder!

In order to get a clear conception of morality let us compare it with a tool. The tool is as eternal and yet as changeable as morality. Can a knife of the stone period be regarded to-day as a knife? It is surely an antiquated knife, but no more a knife in the modern sense; a knife of to-day must be from steel, and of modern finish. But just as a knife consists generally of a handle and blade, so is morality in general the subordination of personal desires to the local, national and, finally, international welfare. Thou shalt subordinate thy immediate passions to general health and life, thy personal needs to the need of society – that is moral, reasonable and necessary. Whatever social welfare temporarily requires, is stipulated by some law. The ethical theory of social-democracy is in accord with the real state of things. We see in the political administration of the nation the guardian of morality, but we regard it also as our duty to be vigilant and to prevent the government turning a changeable and transient institution like the state into an eternal and holy idol, or promoting immoral reaction instead of moral progress, and selfish vice instead of communistic morality. By subordinating private interests to the commonwealth, social-democracy manifests the sense of true and genuine morality.

“The words,” says Schopenhauer, “are no more masterless, and to lend them a different meaning from that they had until now, is simply an abuse.” In colloquial use the word morality stands for an empirical and live fact, for a real, palpable need whose cry is: “ To live and let live.” Morality belongs to the same category with all other profane things. It is a natural quality inherent in man. Human beings without any moral sense are rare exceptions, which, when met with, are to be contemplated with the same judicious mental attitude as some other anthropological or physiological abnormalities. According to recent researches in the domain of natural science “the image of God” is a product which with its hair, with its body and soul, with its religion and morality, descended from the animal kingdom. “As far as I am concerned,” says Darwin, “I am as willing to derive my descent from that heroic little ape which defies its dangerous foe in order to save the life of its guardian, or from that old baboon which, coming down from the hills, victoriously takes away its young comrades from the amazed dogs – as from a savage who finds pleasure in torturing his enemies, offers up sanguinary sacrifices, commits child murder without any compunction, treats his wives as slaves, knows no decency and is controlled by the grossest superstition.” And indeed, my friends, it is more praiseworthy to work oneself up from brutality to the social-democratic ideal than to sink from a heaven-born Adam to the Christian worm, who, conscious of his sinful nonentity, creeps in the dust of humility.

Progress is moral, and morality is progressive. As all other things in the world, morality is in constant evolution. It begins its existence with the animal, but does not win the name until it has grown in man. Fitness and efficiency, that is morality and virtue in the life of our species must, as everything else, struggle for existence against arrant reaction. Worthless survivals are known in biology as rudiments, they are reactions of a past generation upon their posterity. We came to know the same reactionary element as the vicious enemy of historic evolution, just as there are men who move their scalp monkey-like or their ears mule-like, so are there brutal progressives with an atavistic morality.

It is well known that one progressive reform supersedes the other: true progress is therefore the radical, the farthest-reaching progress. Truly moral is only the most intimate and altruistic social organization. That the big is small in relation to the bigger, the small is big in relation to the smaller; that what is a heavy burden to man is an easy thing to the ass – the relativity of qualities big, small, heavy, etc., is generally acknowledged. None the less I think it necessary to draw special attention to the relativity of the moral adjective. It happens with moral laws as with tools. In the course of time the cunningly contrived tools come to be regarded as ridiculously clumsy; and what was once moral becomes in the course of evolution immoral. Compared with socialistic morality, bourgeois morality is an immoral disgrace. Morality thus demands radical progress or an unbroken series of revolutions.

With the final triumph of social-democracy, human culture will start on its road of conscious and endless progress. Until now mankind advanced in a more or less unconscious manner. It is only we social-democrats who deliberately put the principle of progress to the front. Until now all progressive parties had defined limits which, when once reached, checked their movement and turned action into reaction. The greatest heroes of civilization and thought finished by clogging the wheel of progress which they had once accelerated. Moses, Aristotle, Christ, Luther, Kant and Hegel had a most beneficial effect on the course of history until they became saints. Then all their celebrated systems turned into as many stumbling blocks. Of course, our wiseacres have a ready answer to that. They assert that those men of light and leading have been misunderstood by humanity which corrupted their teachings. But as true progressives we know better. those heroes could not have a permanent influence, because they had not penetrated to the true principle of morality. They mistook the particular for the general, and morals for morality. All ethical prescriptions are good, but in a limited sense. Only the limitless progress is always good and absolutely moral. To lay down regulations for all times and conditions, as our system makers claimed to have done, is in the highest degree immoral.

We have seen that morality is based upon the general need for social co-operation. With the growth of that need, morality and civilization grow. The continued development of morality is as necessary to the welfare of our race as food for the body. Any moral prescription which claims to be more than a local or temporary expediency turns necessarily into an immoral limitation, just as a prescribed bill of fare turns finally into an unbearable diet. As bread is a general food, so is truth a general virtue. But remember, my friends, that that fact is by no means a metaphysical prescription with a claim to eternal validity, but an empirical rule which admits of exceptions. An absolute right is, like an absolute truth, theological or metaphysical moonshine. The moral world has but one commandment: permanent social progress, limitless social evolution.

Christian irrationality, which separates the soul from the body, separates also the moral from the physical progress. It removes morality from the sphere of life and action into the narrow closet of feeling, into the secret chamber of the heart. No doubt, a good heart is one of the conditions of sociability, but that is formed in human intercourse, in society, and not in a monastery. Although nobody goes now into the solitude of the forest to live on roots and herbs in order to get a moral education, yet the monastic principle of morality is still prevalent. Where the universe is believed to have sprung from God’s head, and the truth from pure reason, or kindness and justice from the inner voice of the heart, there the wrong path of ideological deduction is still trodden. The undue separation of the moral from the corporeal and of mental culture from material well-being is a theory which appears to be especially made for the benefit of the exploiters of the people. The bitter toil of the people is to be sweetened by moral sugar. The ruling classes, while praising misery, sorrow and pain as a moral crucible, are giving themselves the immoral pleasure of the separated progress of their body. We social-democrats, though distinguishing things and conditions by names and conceptions, are quite aware that in practice all things merge into one another, especially the physical and the moral.

Spiritualistic as the language of the monks was, serfdom, tithes and charity were the material support of their moral twaddle. The same tune, though with some variation, is played by our capitalists. They know the hardships in the life of Robinson Crusoe, but refuse to know how their private wealth has been got out of social labor. Their interest prevents their seeing how deeply immoral or unsocial an economic system is which pays the “neighbor” a disproportionately small share of the product he created by an excessive amount of dire work.

Exact, inductive science teaches the social-democrat that the moral world or the brotherly progress is still a socialist scheme, though at the same time a categorical imperative which impels him to work on unswervingly and with all the moral earnestness at his command for a radical transformation of political economy. No parson and no professor shall talk us out of that.