Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Where’s the moral?

(December 1996)

From Socialist Review, No.203, December 1996.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The wave of moralism at the beginning of last month from mainstream politicians and the media will have sickened many people.

Here was a government which has taken money from the poor to give to the rich, left destitute people to sleep in the streets, bombed thousands of civilians fleeing from Kuwait to Baghdad, lied about arms sales, covered up for parliamentary corruption, destroyed whole communities with its pit closure programme. Yet it had the nerve to commission a code of ‘citizenship’ for schools which instructed pupils not to steal, engage in violence or lie, and to care for others and for communities!

Here too was a parliamentary opposition whose leadership has refused to countenance any move away from these policies on the grounds that they might involve more government expenditure. Its leadership not only joined in the moral hue and cry, but preached to the poor that they had ‘duties’ as well as ‘rights’, while promising the rich they would not have to pay a penny more in taxation.

The talk of morality was being used on both sides to draw up an agenda which points to an increasingly authoritarian use of state power to police people’s lives: curfews for children and teenagers; written agreements by parents to enforce homework, to attend parents’ meetings and to discipline their children at the behest of schools; codes of dress for teachers; the drawing up of ‘life plans’ by the unemployed as a precondition for getting the dole; police intervention against ‘anti-social’ neighbours; bans on drinking alcohol in public places; more expulsions from schools and ‘fast track sentencing’ for juveniles.

The first impulse of most socialists is, quite rightly, to line up with the minority of civil liberties liberals who alone express explicit public opposition to the new authoritarian moralism. We do so on the understanding that the talk of morality is humbug, directed not against the rich and the powerful, but against the poor and oppressed. Its aim is not to correct social abuses, but to create the impression among the middle and ‘respectable’ working classes that such abuses are the fault of an alleged ‘underclass’ whose anti-social behaviour must be tightly curtailed.

But the argument cannot stop there. The socialist case against the media and mainstream politicians is not just that they use the language of morality as a cover for bigoted authoritarianism, but that they themselves are highly immoral.

Their own behaviour creates the evils that beset society. ‘How can you say this?’ some readers might protest. ‘Didn’t Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky always denounce talk of abstract morality?’

They did denounce abstract moralising, and rightly so. Moral codes do not arise outside of history and society. They vary from society to society, so that an act that is ‘bad’ in one society might be regarded as permissible in another.

They also vary with social position in our society today. So killing is regarded as bad, unless it is decided on at meetings of a cabinet or military high command and carried out by men and women in uniform. Stealing is wrong, unless it is named ‘VAT’ and taken from people who want fuel to keep the cold at bay.

People who make abstract moral judgements – ‘all killing is wrong’, ‘all violence is wrong’, ‘all lying is wrong’ – either end up in accepting such hypocrisy (the moral crusaders of the right) or in washing their hands of struggles against the evils of existing society since they involve ‘immoral’ means.

Yet Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky had no doubt that people in concrete situations did have moral duties – the duty not to break a strike whatever the pressures on you or your family, the duty not to betray your comrades in the struggle, the duty to show solidarity, the duty not to ‘sell out’, the duty to resist those who would scapegoat ethnic or religious minorities.

Certainly, few people would be socialists today if they were not motivated by a feeling that some things have to be opposed, not simply because they might be against your own material interests, but because they are wrong in themselves – the threat to destroy the world with nuclear weapons, the encouragement of racism and sexism, the resort to gas chambers and death camps, the willingness to ruin people’s lives in the pursuit of profit.

It was precisely out of such ‘moral’ concerns that Marx himself first became a Marxist in the mid-1840s. His starting point was a concern with how true human ‘freedom’ was to come about, how humans were to take conscious control both of nature and the social institutions around them, ‘to overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, forsaken, contemptible being forced into servitude’.

This could not be achieved, as the bourgeois liberals believed, simply by getting rid of oppressive social structures such as the absolutist state or organised religion.

Humans are by their very nature social beings. None of us could get a livelihood from the world around us if we did not cooperate with others. All our enjoyments, feelings, emotions, are social and depend on our interaction with other humans as part of wider communities. Yet bourgeois society destroys all ties between people except those based on the buying and selling of commodities in the market and so leaves people dehumanised, however much formal freedom it grants them.

Before Marx, the philosopher Hegel had already seen – although in a somewhat mystical way – faults with such a merely liberal approach. It reduced human beings to relating to each other in an atomistic way through the market, in a ‘war of all against all’ in which the freedom of each individual was continually undermined by the freedom of others, so that no one could achieve what they wanted.

In his old age, Hegel drew conservative conclusions from these insights. Middle class liberalism could, he contended, only provide people with true freedom if something else provided the element of communal life that the market could not. This element, he said, would be the state. If properly constituted, it could reconcile people’s rights and duties in a way that ensured that negative freedom became positive freedom.

Interestingly, Labour leader Tony Blair’s litany of moral platitudes about rights and duties are based on a philosophical tradition that developed in Britain at the end of the last century out of a deeply conservative interpretation of Hegel. This held that people should willingly submit to the authoritarianism of the state as the repository of all moral values.

Marx, however, developed Hegel’s insight in a different direction. By rising above society, the state in no way cancels out the atomised, market conditions which destroy any real community ties and cancel out each individual’s freedom. It could not, as Marx began to put it, end the alienation which led to the products of human action taking on a dehumanised, oppressive life of their own.

What is more, the state was not some abstract entity, but controlled by particular social groups. Its power served to further oppress people, to deepen their alienation, not liberate them. All it and the religious institutions that backed it up did was try to impose on them from the outside abstract, inhuman, lifeless, rules of behaviour which served only to sanctify the division into classes and the lack of freedom it produced.

In a classless society, moral terms – good, honest, virtuous – are descriptive, telling people how they have to relate to each other if they are to benefit from cooperative labour and the social life which develops with it. But once class society has arisen, they are interpreted by each class in its own way.

The ruling class seeks to impose on the other classes its own view of how people should live – so that goodness comes to mean accepting one’s social position, honesty means leaving the rich to get richer, virtue means cramping personal relationships within one particular family form. And the state, by using its power to try to make society cohere, in fact acts to make the exploited classes accept the moral rules laid down by the ruling class.

In such a society, the link between what is ‘moral’ and what advances free human development is all but broken. The dominant morality becomes, on the one hand, a set of rules which oppress people, making them feel guilty about some of their most human attributes. On the other hand, since such morality in no way improves social living, it seems to people a purely arbitrary set of assumptions which can be ignored at will. So it produces guilt on the one side, pure self centred behaviour on the other.

But the goal moral notions had once fulfilled – of allowing people to fulfil themselves through social cooperation with others ­ cannot be forgotten. Indeed, the more capitalism undermines all non-market relations between people, the more important it becomes to try to discover some way of fulfilling that goal.

It was this which led the young Marx to argue that human emancipation could only come through a new social force that challenged market society in its entirety, raising the prospect of a new, cooperative social order. This force could be constituted only by ‘a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere of society which is of universal character because its sufferings are universal’. It was precisely this which led Marx to identify the working class as the agent necessary to overthrow capitalism.

The solution to the issues traditionally dealt with by moral philosophers now became, for Marx, a practical question, of how to advance the struggle of the working class against capitalism. For only this would lead to the construction of ‘a truly human society, in which, as he and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.

Marx saw that what is of cardinal importance is not the personal behaviour of the individual but the struggle between social forces, not personal morality but the fight to establish the good society. And in that struggle, the language of moralism was all too often the language used by the ruling class in order to constrain those who opposed it. Even dissident moralists who opposed the ruling class could do little more than preach about individual behaviour (’before you can change society you must first change yourself’) in a way that drove people in on themselves and cut them off from the deployment of broader class forces.

By contrast, every real development of working class struggle does begin to throw up the sort of values that point to the possibility of a truly cooperative and therefore truly human society. As against the atomisation of the market, such struggles raise notions of solidarity, of mutual support, of a pooling of abilities, of cooperative endeavour.

It is the contrast between these new values and those created by the rat race of capitalist competition that provides the moral dimension to the Marxist critique of those who seek to preserve existing society or abandon the struggle against it for the sake of personal advancement. In Marx’s day they were helping to perpetuate a society which denied human beings the possibility of a truly cooperative, human and worthwhile life. Today, they are doing worse. They are going along with a system which threatens the very basis of human life itself through nuclear war or ecological catastrophe. Their moral codes are immoral precisely because they seek to bind together this system, not overthrow it. To this extent, Marxism, while rejecting abstract moralism, does provide criteria by which we can judge our own and other people’s behaviour.

The end is justified, as Trotsky put it in the mid-1930s, ‘if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man’.

To achieve this end, means may be necessary which upset the moralists of existing society – for example, the use of force to neutralise the violence of the other side, or deception in the face of the class enemy. By contrast, there are other means which have to be rejected as incompatible with this end, as contradicting socialist morality precisely because they help perpetuate a dehumanised society based on a submissive class – means which are often treated as ‘legitimate’ by the moralists of existing society.

As Trotsky insisted:

‘Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression ... imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self sacrifice.

‘Precisely from this it flows that not all means are permissible... The great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts ... or lowers the faith of the masses in themselves and their organisation ...’

Such impermissible means include anything which keeps the working class in ignorance, anything which divides one section against another, anything which diverts bitterness against the oppressors into scapegoating of minorities, anything which weakens the global force of the class – anything, in effect, which undermines the ability of the working class to develop as a ‘universal class’.

So excluded as a matter of principle are death camps, nuclear weaponry, racism and sexism, ethnic hatred, pornography, mass deception, the establishment of leader cults. The fight for working class revolution is, in part, a fight against any temptation for workers to dabble with or to accept any of these things.

Last updated on 21 December 2009