The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962

16. Law and Morality in Soviet Society

THE Soviet Union is not a society of artists co-operating freely and consciously in tasks that require no coercive discipline but that express the community’s mastery over the process of production. In their forty-four years of existence, Soviet law, Soviet morality and Soviet legal theory have trailed meekly in the wake of economic and political requirements dictated from the top — requirements that frequently suffered abrupt change and which even more frequently flowed from practical aims quite inconsistent with Marx’s theory. But throughout, there has been the wish to portray Soviet society as constantly nearing the free, co-operative community envisaged by Marx: the community in which law and the very conception of moral rights and duties will have withered away.

For the Soviet legal theorist, the problem did not become acute until the 1936 Stalin Constitution ushered in a period in which law was for the first time openly proclaimed as an intimate and not highly temporary part of the socialist society. In the period of ‘War Communism’ from 1917 to 1921, Communist leaders had taken the opposite view. Convinced of the imminence of world-wide socialism, they strove to rid their country of every vestige of capitalism. They abolished private ownership of land and of the means of production; prohibited private trade in consumers’ goods, did away with inheritance, paid wages partially in kind, conducted moneyless transaction between State business houses, and predicted the speedy coming of true Communism, under which money, class and State authority would disappear. Law was therefore regarded as strictly transitional and as still representing class interests — as a set of rules designed for the suppression of the ‘class enemies’ which would become unnecessary once the liquidation of these enemies had been accomplished. Thus, even the criminal law was seen as a pure class measure dictated by the economic interests of the proletariat. The Leading Principles of Criminal Law, enacted by the People’s Commissariat of Justice in 1919, expresses this attitude bluntly:

In the interests of economising forces and harmonising and centralising diverse acts, the proletariat ought to work out rules of repressing its class enemies, ought to create a method of struggle with its enemies and learn to dominate them. And first of all this ought to relate to criminal law, which has as its task the struggle against the breakers of the new conditions of common life in the transitional period of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Only with the final smashing of the opposing overthrown bourgeois and intermediate classes and with the realisation of the Communist social order will the proletariat annihilate both the State as an organisation of coercion, and law as a function of the State.[100]

The New Economic Policy of 1921-28, it is true, saw a drastic reversal of this trend. With the reappearance of money, private trade, kulaks, and private business managers operating under State licences, a detailed system of law and legal procedure quickly emerged.[101] But it set no basic problem for Soviet legal theory. The New Economic Policy was an open, though partial and strictly controlled, restoration of the capitalist market — the laws required, therefore, were not socialist laws, but temporary laws on the capitalist model, which would disappear when the concessions to capitalism were once more eliminated. The new Codes were frankly based on those of the non-socialist world — on the Codes of Germany, Switzerland, Imperial Russia and France. Legal capacity, persons, corporations, legal transactions, Statute of Limitations, property, mortgages, landlord and tenant, contracts and torts, unjust enrichment and inheritance, as Berman remarks,[102] were dealt with in traditional terms. In so far as one can speak of any specifically socialist conception of law in this period, it rests not on the legal concepts or principles exemplified in the Codes, but on their subordination, in the last resort, to the alleged economic interests of the proletariat. The famous Article 1 of the Civil Code states this overriding principle of the NEP conception of law: ‘Civil rights shall be protected by law except in instances when they are exercised in contradiction with their social-economic purpose.’[103] There is no suggestion that these social-economic purposes themselves lay the foundation for a positive system of distinctively socialist law.

This became absolutely clear in 1928, when the NEP compromise was abandoned and replaced by the two Five-Year Plans, designed to turn Soviet Russia, independently of world revolution, into a socialist society as quickly as possible.

Now, for the first time, positive content was given to the Marxist idea of the disappearance of State and Law under socialism. It was thought that Law, an instrument of the class-dominated State, would be replaced by Plan, the manifestation of the will of a class-less society. Through the Plan all the characteristics of the original Marxist dream would be realised. Planning would eliminate exploitation; money would be transformed into a mere unit of account; private property and private right generally would be swallowed up in collectivism; the family would disappear as a legal entity, with husbands and wives bound only by ties of affection and children owing their allegiance and their upbringing to the whole society; crime would he exceptional and would be treated as mental illness; the coercive machinery of the State would become superfluous. The Plan would give unity and harmony to all relations. The Plan itself would differ from Law, since it would be an instrument neither of compulsion nor of formality but simply an expression of rational foresight on the part of the planners, with the whole people participating and assenting spontaneously. Society would be regulated, administered — much as traffic at an intersection is regulated by traffic lights and by rules of the road; but in a society without class conflict there would he few collisions and to deal with them it would be unnecessary to have a system of ‘justice’. Social-economic expediency would be the ultimate criterion; disputes would be resolved on the spot.[104]

In this period, under the leadership of E. B. Pashukanis, N. Krylenko and P. J. Stuchka, Soviet legal philosophy was unquestionably at its best. Pashukanis and Stuchka were theorists, genuinely concerned to work out a coherent Marxist account of law. This, they knew, no one had yet done properly. They wanted to show, as they thought Marx showed, and as Soviet leaders had so far agreed (though Lenin had a genius for ambiguity), that socialist law was a contradiction in terms. Law, they held with Marx, was a reflection of economic antagonisms; with the eradication of these antagonisms it would necessarily disappear. A Marxist theory of law, says Pashukanis, cannot claim to seek the general concept of a proletarian law. ‘The dying out of the categories of bourgeois law will ... signify the dying out of law in general: that is to say, the gradual disappearance of the juridic element in human relations.’[105] Pashukanis saw, however, that this view needed far more support in the field of law than Marx, Engels and Lenin had ever given it. He saw, above all, that it was necessary to show — as we have seen Marx never showed — that bourgeois law is not merely influenced and distorted by economic interests, but that its basic structure, concepts and principles are the reflections of economic categories of bourgeois society that make no sense without it. Pashukanis, in fact, goes further and insists that law itself is essentially bourgeois, that it rests on conceptions necessarily linked with commodity exchange, and that law can therefore only attain its consummation in bourgeois society. All law, Pashukanis argues, is private law. There can be no true public law establishing the relationship between the State and private individuals because the State is by its very nature above and outside the law. Law is built on the contractual relationships required in the process of exchanging commodities on a free market — its cornerstone is the abstract individual of capitalist economic life, ‘the right- and duty-bearing unit.’[106] This contractual conception dominates every sphere of law — tort, family and marriage law, labour law, constitutional law (based on a ‘social contract’) and even criminal law, in which Pashukanis sees the ius talionis giving way, after an intermediate stage of money composition, to the commercial idea that a crime must be paid for ex post facto. With the overcoming of the bourgeois abstraction of the individual, the abolition of commercial relations and the establishment of the social interest and the social man, the whole structure of law necessarily loses meaning and collapses.

Then, in 1936, a major theoretical upheaval began. Socialist society, it was formally announced, had finally been achieved. The first stage of the classless society, it contained three strata — the workers, the peasants, the intelligentsia. These, however, were friendly and mutually supporting sections of the population, not the hostile economic groupings of the societies of class antagonism. Yet the conclusions that would have followed from this announcement on earlier Marxist theory were categorically denied. The State was not to wither away, law was not to begin disappearing. On the contrary, the allegedly successful completion of the foundations of stable socialist society was to permit the unflowering of a truly socialist State and a truly socialist law as an intimate part of Soviet society.

Formally, the theoretical backing for this radical change in theory lay in the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’. Soviet theoreticians have at no stage denied, and do not deny even now, that State and law will ultimately wither away.[107] But from 1936 onward, the building of socialism in one country was taken to make the earlier confidence in the speedy withering away of the State inapplicable. Surrounded by a hostile capitalist world, the theory ran, Soviet society needed the protection of a strong State, and such a State inevitably needed law.

The theory itself was far from consistent, of course. Even if one granted — and many Marxists did not — the possibility of a Marxist theory of socialism in one country, the compulsive powers of a State based purely on the threat of a surrounding capitalist world should be confined to matters connected with that threat and to its occasional intrusions, through spies or saboteurs, into Soviet society. It does not lay the foundations for a coercive socialist law of marriage, family and civil relations, non-political crime and so on. Yet it was precisely in these fields that a mounting change was making itself most strongly felt. The cause was not primarily theoretical but practical. By 1934 and 1935, a major crisis in the social relations of Soviet life was becoming more and more evident. Soviet leaders were becoming increasingly conscious of the failure of the more radical Marxist theory to command the support of the common people or to cope with such widespread problems as juvenile delinquency and the instability of Soviet family life. They responded with a wholesale abandonment of radicalism.

‘Free love’ was denounced,[108] abortion controlled, patriotism verging on Russian chauvinism strongly encouraged. There were major concessions to religion. ‘Soviet legality’ was suddenly proclaimed a fundamental basis of Soviet social life. What Soviet leaders had realised — but could never say — was that the new economic basis of Soviet life in no way dissolved the traditional non-economic conflicts of social and family life. Not Plan, but Law, was needed to deal with these.

The first task was to sweep away the theories of Pashukanis and Stuchka, with their emphasis that law, in treating men as abstracted individuals, was necessarily capitalist in nature. Both men were denounced as wreckers and traitors, seeking to sabotage Soviet socialist development. The reaction was begun by P. Yudin’s article Socialism and Law,[109] which rather unably re-emphasised the normative functions of law as a class weapon, even in the socialist State.[110] It was consummated with a far more vicious but equally unable attack by the then Procurator of the U.S.S.R., A. Y. Vyshinsky, in his The Law of the Soviet State.

Ironically, Vyshinsky begins with a typical lack of theoretical farsightedness to launch an attack which is quite sound but the implication of which is to destroy the whole foundations of Marxist theory in so far as they depend on economic reductionism. Law, he insists, cannot be reduced to economics. ‘Stuchka’s fundamental perversion in this question is that he reduced Soviet civil law to the sphere of production and barter. What then is to be done with the part of law which regulates marriage and family relationships? Or must these likewise be regulated from the view-point of “socialist planning"? Clearly civil law embraces a sphere of relationship broader than those of barter only (as Pashukanis asserts) or even those of production and barter only (Stuchka).’[111] ‘Reducing law to economics, as Stuchka did, asserting that law coincides with the relations of production, these gentlemen slid into the bog of economic materialism.’ ‘Stuchka and his followers liquidated law as a specific social category, drowned law in economics, deprived it of its active, creative role.’[112]

Vyshinsky wants to save law as a specific social category. But while his hard-headed realism — spurred on, no doubt, by political calculation — enables him to see the obvious difficulties of economic reductionism, he cannot throw enough of it overboard to give an account of this category himself. Economics and politics, he has to concede, determine law. But the effect, he argues, is not the same as the cause. Law has a specific nature of its own, in socialist society at least.

What, then, is the specific nature of law? Here Marxism drives Vyshinsky into nothing but contradictions. ‘Law,’ he says boldly, ‘is the totality (a) of the rules of conduct, expressing the will of the dominant class and established in legal order, and (b) of customs and rules of community life sanctioned by State authority — their application being guaranteed by the compulsive force of the State in order to guard, secure and develop social relationships and social orders advantageous and agreeable to the dominant class.’[113] In other words, law again is the expression of class interest, and though Vyshinsky avoids characterising class interests as economic, it is clear that what is specifically legal has still not appeared.

What is specifically legal never does appear in Vyshinsky’s work. He does, with the naivete of Communist utopianism, assert that in Soviet society the will of the toilers has become the will of the whole people. The single general guiding principle for all Soviet law in all its branches is socialism.[114]

For all his heroic criticism of reductionism, then, Vyshinsky has nothing positive to offer. Uneasily conscious of the fact that actual Soviet law — especially in what Vyshinsky takes to be the obviously legal spheres of family and social relationships — is surprisingly like bourgeois law in content, he yet wants to deny that there are universal legal categories or forms underlying all legal systems. Bourgeois law, to Vyshinsky, is indeed simply an expression of economic interests, only socialist law is truly legal law. Why? Not because it has certain specifically legal qualities lacking in bourgeois law, but because it has come to express the will of the entire people. In which case, as Marx and earlier Marxists saw, there should simply be no need for law.[115]

The conflict between the theories of Pashukanis and those of Vyshinsky begins as a conflict of emphasis. Pashukanis leans heavily on the anti-authoritarian strain in Marx’s work. He takes as his starting-point Marx’s insistence that law expresses man’s alienation from other men and society — in law, these confront him as hostile forces. Conditions of freedom, therefore, will make law impossible. Vyshinsky claims to agree with this. In conditions of true freedom, the social and the individual interest will be finally merged; law will disappear. But Pashukanis himself had conceded that in the transitional stage the proletariat, having captured control of society, must still use law and force in suppressing its class enemies. This, we have seen, is the conception of socialist law with which Vyshinsky begins. He, too, leans heavily on certain ideas in Marx’s work: the conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, from which the path to Communism must commence,[116] and Marx’s treatment of law and political power generally as ‘merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another’ (The Communist Manifesto, M 1, 6, 546). The initial distinction between Pashukanis and Vyshinsky thus seems to be merely that one emphasises the imminence of true freedom under Communism while the other emphasises the necessity of coercive law in the transitional period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which class distinctions and their consequences have not yet entirely disappeared from social life.

Such differences in emphasis need not, on the face of it, be incompatible. Marx does emphasise in several works that there is a certain lag between developments in the economic structure of society and resultant changes in the political and ideological superstructure. His view seems to be that the abolition of property does not immediately eliminate the psychological attitudes born of property: these disappear slowly in the ensuing generations which have lost even the memories of class society. Where Vyshinsky would have appeared to Pashukanis and earlier Communists to be going well beyond what can be justified from Marx is in his emphasis that Soviet law as a normative weapon still has ‘a creative role’ to play and in his insistence that there are social spheres to be regulated from points of view other than that of socialist planning. Here, then, once more was the superstructure playing an active and not merely passive role.

We have seen already that Marx himself was far from taking seriously his own doctrine of ‘reflection’ and always treating factors in the superstructure as purely passive. Might, he recognised, could become an economic force; and his whole conception of the proletariat transforming production through the exercise of despotic political power rests on this non-reductionist assumption. Marx himself attempted to avoid any open conflict in his theory by treating the proletariat’s political action as itself economically determined. Vyshinsky and his followers have wanted to go further than this, to invest socialist law with all the majesty of conscious rationality, to see freedom enshrined within the very dependence proclaimed by (their) law. This required more than a grudging admission of a certain amount of interaction between the superstructure and the base. It required a new and totally un-Marxist conception of ideologies and legal and political institutions as vital, creative and conscious forces moulding society; it required the administrator’s delusion that policies determine society. Stalin, indeed, came close to it:

The superstructure is born of the base, but this does not at all mean that it only reflects the base, that it is passive, neutral, that it is indifferent to the fate of its base, to the future of classes, to the character of the [social] structure. On the contrary, having come into the world, it becomes a mighty active force, actively helping its base to develop and grow stronger, taking all measures to help the new order to ruin and liquidate, the old economic base and the old classes.[117]

Marx’s economic reductionism, as we have seen, closed off the positive study of ethics just as Marx himself was beginning to lay foundations on which it might be developed. To the revolutionary socialist this was not so obvious while his primary struggle was against social slavery in the form of political bondage or utter economic dependence. Marx’s reductionism, with all its incoherencies, had enabled Marx to emphasise the disparity between ‘formal’ and actual justice in the societies of class domination, to show the emptiness of ‘rights to do’ that were not accompanied by the actual capacity to do. In some societies, such as Victorian England, which occupied a favourable position in the world economy of their day, in which the standard of living was rising rapidly and where the pressure of competition was not particularly severe, the Marxist analysis made no great ethical or political impact. It was natural for leaders of all sections of the community to confuse the benefits of a period of increasing prosperity with the benefits that might accrue from morality. In nineteenth-century Russia there was no such rapid rise in prosperity, and no corresponding faith in the efficacy of conventional moral principles, orderly political negotiation and legal ‘rights’. ‘Legal rights have no value for a man unless he possesses the material means to benefit by them,’ wrote the Russian revolutionary N. G. Chernyshevskii at the time that Marx was writing Das Capital.[118] ‘Man is not an abstract legal person, but a living creature ... A man who is dependent for his material means of existence cannot be an independent human being in fact, even though his independence is proclaimed by the letter of the law.’ Subsequent Marxists in Russia had little difficulty in taking up this thread in both Chernyshevskii and Marx and making it, together with the materialist rejection of supra-empirical norms — their main criticism of the ‘class’ moralities of the past. The insistence that there is no common or social interest above other interests in the class society, the rejection of unhistorical ‘norms’ and of the abstract ‘individual’ and the exposure of contradictions between formal ‘rights’ and actual social situations is the one steady and reasonably respectable theme running through Marxist and Soviet ethical writing.

In the pre-Revolutionary period and in the early days of the Revolution there was also considerable emphasis on Communist morality as the morality of freedom — but it came more from intellectuals captivated by the vision of a new society than from the professional and disciplined revolutionaries whom Lenin saw as the true bearers of Communism. Thus both P. B. Struve and N. A. Berdyaev, during their brief Marxian period in the last decade of the nineteenth century, emphasised the Kantian dictum that the individual person must always be treated as an end and never as a means, while rejecting Kant’s ethical formalism and his concern with ‘abstract obligation’. Communism, to them, as to Marx in his more individualist moments, was the universal kingdom of ends. By 1903, when both Struve and Berdyaev had turned from Marxism, four other young Russian Marxists were proclaiming Communism as the true dawn of the individual. They were A. V. Lunacharsky (1875-1933), later to become People’s Commissar for Culture under Lenin; Stanislav Volsky (pseudonym of A. V. Sokolov, 1880-1936?); A. A. Bogdanov (pseudonym of A. A. Malinovsky, 1873-1928); and V. A. Bazarov (pseudonym of V. A. Rudnev, 1874-1936?). Lunacharsky and Volsky, as G. L. Kline points out,[119] drew heavily on the work and ideals of Nietzsche, explicitly rejecting any conception of moral obligation and upholding the individual as a free creator of values and ideals. Moral indoctrination, Lunacharsky writes,[120] can generate nothing but slaves. The new social order will emancipate man completely, establish the individual’s right to be guided in his life solely by his own desires. Admittedly, social and individual interests may clash; but the species has no existence apart from its individual members. ‘What is a living powerful species if not an aggregate of living, powerful individuals?’ In ‘the splendid future’, under the new social order, the interests of the individuals and those of society will be in complete harmony. Volsky takes the same line, hardly less passionately but somewhat more coherently. Obligatory norms will disappear with the defeat of capitalism. The bourgeoisie had freed the individual in the hour of revolution only to enslave him in the hour of triumph; the proletariat will command the individual in the hour of revolution only to free him in the hour of triumph. ‘The class sees in itself something to be eliminated, the individual something to be asserted.’[121]

Bogdanov and Bazarov are also concerned to free the individual from coercive norms, but they do not see the socialist collective as an aggregate of powerful, self-driven individuals. The individual, rather, will become fused into the collective — as ‘in ecstatic moments ... when it seems to us that our tiny being disappears, is fused with the infinite.’[122] Individualism, both Bogdanov and Bazarov insist, was a liberating movement in its conflict with authoritarianism, but becomes reactionary in its struggle against the socialist future (Kline, pp. 621, 622). In the new society, emphasis will fall upon sobornost (organic togetherness), upon ‘objective, immediately social creativity, in which the very notion of ‘the individual’ and his interests will be extinguished.’[123]

The upholding of individualism, we have suggested above, is not a satisfactory answer to Marxism: there is some truth in Bazarov’s suggestion that a free society will not be ‘walled off into the miserable little cells of self-sufficient individualities.’ The intimacy of lovers, he writes, gives only ‘a faint hint of that fusion of all human souls which will be the inevitable result of the Communist order.’[124] Similarly, when Bogdanov insists[125] that Goethe did not produce Faust or Darwin the theory of evolution, but that both men put the finishing touches to a collective effort, there is more truth in this than Kline, say, is willing to stress. Bogdanov has perceived, as Bazarov also perceived, something of the mutually supporting character of artistic creation, love and enquiry, the way in which they can ‘transcend’ the individual and appropriate freely materials furnished by others. Recognising this however, does not require us to minimise the role that any particular person — Goethe or Darwin — might play in shaping the finished product of theory, whereas Bogdanov and Bazarov do patently wish to minimise this role. The new society, Bazarov writes, will favour not ,artists of disorderly individual searching, but artists in schools which move by plan toward their goal.’[126] Here we have more than the correct recognition that free activities are mutually co-operative activities. Here we have the reimposition of servility, the elevation of goals and plans over the spontaneous workings of the free and creative life.

When Bogdanov and Bazarov turn to attack not Kant’s abstract will but his elevation of man as an end, and themselves substitute other ends, the servile character of their doctrine is finally confirmed. ‘The free man not only regards his neighbour as a means; he demands that his neighbour should see in him only a means ... for the neighbour’s own ends.’[127] ‘The recognition of the ‘individual person’ as an absolute principle has always been, and will always be, alien to the proletariat.’ [128] , By 1920, the point of all this had become painfully evident. Leon Trotsky, in his Terrorizm i kommunizm (p. 61), repudiates scornfully the ‘Kantian-clerical, vegetarian-Quaker chatter about the “sanctity of human life”.’ The doctrine that individuals are ends in themselves is a metaphysical, bourgeois doctrine; the proletarian and the revolutionary know that where necessary (for the Revolution) the individual is and should be treated only as a means. The prominent party theorist A. B. Zalkind put the position bluntly five years later: ‘For the proletariat, human life does not have a metaphysical, self-sufficient value. The proletariat recognises only the interests of the ... revolution.’[129]

The struggle between individualists and collectivists was resolved emphatically by the regime that followed the October Revolution. Lunacharsky’s period of grace was short-lived; the poet Blok died and the poet Yesenin committed suicide; the primacy of the proletarian revolution, of the party, of collective discipline and individual subordination and obedience were established with increasing firmness. Ethical speculation was discouraged; intellectuals were treated with suspicion as ‘individualists’ and possible dissenters. The principle of collective criminal responsibility was used to crush the peasantry and the principle of guilt by class-origin or kinship was used to crush the intelligentsia. Everything, it is true, was done in the name of freedom, seen as a goal soon to be achieved; but the immediate content of moral conceptions was the primacy of the victory of Communism and of the rules of the Party. Then came the period of the Stalinist dictatorship and of the ‘great purges’ and ethical theory reached its nadir.

The change in ethical theory, as in law, came with the new Stalin Constitution in 1936. The new concern was with social stability, with reinforcing the family, the love of country and the security of ‘ordinary life’. Moral radicalism, which had failed to capture the masses, was largely abandoned. The exigencies of war produced heavy emphasis on conventional moral slogans and normative exhortation; they also led to increased stress on ‘socialist humanism’, the respect for man which ‘progressives’ had displayed in all ages and shared in all countries even today in their struggle against the ‘fascist beasts’. Forthright attacks on the importance of the individual disappeared from Soviet writing. Communism means the ‘true flowering of the individual’, but such flowering ‘is only possible on the basis of the leading role of social interest."[130]

The vital and creative role of Soviet law had been stressed by Vyshinsky — for patently political reasons — in 1938. To ascribe a vital and creative role to Soviet morality would have been to depart even more dangerously from the Marxian slogan that ‘social being determines social consciousness’ and that morality only reflects the material life of man. Then, with Stalin’s Marxism and Questions of Linguistics (1950), the supreme authority himself opened the way for treating the superstructure, including morality, as a vital and active force on the path to Communism. Official encouragement was given to the creation and propagation of the theory and norms of Communist morality. In 1951, a conference of Soviet and Czech philosophers agreed that the teaching of Marxist ethics was inadequate and confused, that it was not set out in logical terms and that it neglected moral theory before Hobbes: a specialist course, such as M. I. Lifanov had outlined in Voprosy Filosofii (no. 2, 1951), was badly needed. In the same year, Sharia published his Concerning Some Questions of Morality, in which the active, creative role of consciousness was stressed even more strongly than Stalin had stressed it:

Marxism-Leninism teaches that not only the building of the new Communist economy, but also the formation of the new Communist consciousness of man is not self-propelled, not a process dictated by fate, but follows from the many-sided, completely devoted educational work of the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet administration.
(Introduction, p. 3.)

Sharia, in his emphasis on conscious decision and limited free will, had perhaps gone somewhat further than Soviet authorities were willing to countenance; he has written nothing on ethics since. But the emphasis on moral theory and propaganda continued. Shishkin, now the doyen of Soviet moral philosophers, published his Foundations of Communist Morality in 1955 and the first reasonably serious work on the history of ethical theory for many years, From the History of Ethical Doctrines, in 1959. At the same time, a conference of moral philosophers and party, industrial, educational and Komsomol leaders met in Leningrad under the auspices of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and of the Ministry of Higher and Specialised Secondary Education to discuss the role of ethics in Soviet life. It ended by formulating a draft syllabus for ethical teaching in higher educational institutions and publishing the papers presented before it.[131] All of them stressed the profoundly ethical nature of Communism and the need for the most intensive moral education to overcome the vestiges of capitalism and of anti-moral and amoral conceptions in human consciousness. N. S. Khrushchev, in his report to the XXIst Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had underlined the importance of moral education:

We must develop among Soviet people Communist morality, at the foundation of which lie loyalty to Communism and uncompromising enmity to its foes, the consciousness of social duty, active participation in labour, the voluntary observation of the fundamental rules of human communal life, comradely mutual help, honesty and truthfulness, and intolerance of the disturbers of the social order.[132]

To these excellent sentiments the Soviet philosophers and educational leaders assembled found little to add.


Soviet moral philosophers, then, have come down heavily on the conception we saw Marx and Engels develop in the German Ideology: the conception that morality is concerned with social interest.[133] The morality of the new world is thus full of the abstract moral concepts of the old: duty to society, care for fellow-men, upholding of the social order, etc. To establish a difference, Soviet philosophers rely on the economic interpretation of history. The abolition of private property means that the social interest has truly been established, while in the capitalist society of private property and class distinctions it remains an illusion or a hypocritical cloak for the interests of the ruling class. Even in the period of the proletarian dictatorship, when morality still represents a class interest, morality loses completely its hypocritical character: the proletariat, the overwhelming majority of mankind, needs no hypocrisy to cloak its interests, which are the interests of the vast majority of mankind. But its morality, before the Revolution and after, is a mighty force, organising and fusing the masses, helping to destroy the old order and lay the foundations for the new.[134] Ever-increasingly, Soviet leaders emphasise the power of ideology, of moral exhortation and moral education.

The abandonment of ethical radicalism, of contempt for conventional moral slogans and of the insistence that all moralities passively reflect the economic conditions that give them birth, has finally led to the extension of the ‘Popular Front’ ideology to the field of moral philosophy. Soviet philosophers in recent years not only insist — following Engels in Chapter IX of Anti-Dühring — that there has been continuous progress in morality, but now emphasise that there are certain basic moral conceptions applicable in all ages and that the ‘progressive’ thinkers of all times have gone beyond the conditions of their time to the morality of the future. Lenin, in The State and Revolution (HM 759), speaks of the ‘elementary rules of social life’ which have been taught in school books for generations and which Communists will make into a social habit; Krushchev, as we have just seen, echoed the phrase in his address to the XXIst Congress, where he called for the ‘voluntary observance of the fundamental rules of human communal life’. To a Soviet philosopher, these are eminent and ‘safe’ authorities, even if Engels (and Marx) were quite unequivocal in insisting that any moral principles that had appeared ‘eternal’ did so only because they expressed those forms of dependence common to all past societies. At the same time, a new generation of specialists in the Soviet Union tends naturally to become increasingly aware of the specific problems and characters of a specialist’s field and to demand for it a certain intellectual independence. Even so, only one Soviet philosopher — as far as I know — has drawn the full logical implications of the Lenin-Khrushchev position. V. P. Tugarinov, of Leningrad University, has been arguing since 1958 that in the various sciences we will find a part determined by the categories of historical materialism, but also a part based on the special categories of the science concerned — categories which are applicable at all stages of historical development. Thus in ethics, he argues in his O tsennostiakh zhizni i kultury (Concerning The Values of Life and Culture), there are ‘moments’ expressing what is common to all humanity and ‘moments’ expressing class interest. Tugarinov, of course, does not simply divide ethics into eternal truths and disguised class interest; he portrays the relationship as an intricate one, insists that abstract judgments expressing universal ethical notions become subservient to class interest in the manner of their application to concrete situations, and generally holds that ‘moments’ of a universal kind are stronger in aesthetics than ethics. (Op. Cit., pp. 23-4.)

Even Tugarinov, however, promising as his position might appear, is prevented from making any genuine contribution to ethical theory by his uncritical acceptance of moral rules as normative rules and of ethical judgments as tied to — unexamined — ‘interests’. Precisely because no Soviet philosopher has either questioned or even seriously examined this identification of ethics with interests, Soviet philosophy has consistently substituted evasion and conformism for any genuine tackling of the problems of ethical theory. Working with a doctrine of interests, they have been in an impossible position. Like the legal writers, Soviet moral philosophers have faced the basic difficulty that the need for moral or legal obligation can only be explained if individual and social interest do not truly coincide, while the difference between Communist morality and other moralities can only be explained by saying that under Communism individual and social interest do coincide. Sharia, indeed, tries to argue that individual and social interest in Communist society harmonise without being identical: If they were identical, he concedes, there would be no moral ‘alternatives’ and therefore no field for morality (p. 70). Morality hence has to be based on the combination of two criteria:

True moral evaluation cannot take place on the basis of the purely objective criterion of the usefulness of an action for the development of society, neither can it take place on the basis of the purely subjective criterion of personal pleasure — only the bringing together of both these criteria gives us the underlying morality of action. Priority always belongs to the objective content of behaviour. This Marxist thesis refutes both the a priorism of moral norms and creeping empiricism, i.e., the actual denial of moral principles altogether. In this Marxist thesis the dialectical-materialist principle of the unity of subject and object finds its concretisation in the field of morality. (p. 62, Sharia’s italics.)

The reference to dialectical materialism, of course, is sheer mystification. Sharia’s promulgation of two criteria does nothing to solve the problem — if this is a genuine problem — of harmonising individual and social interest: it merely restates that problem. Neither does any other Soviet ethical writer solve or seriously tackle this problem; the others gloss it over more skilfully — and more dishonestly.

What does appear from Sharia’s position, from our earlier quotations from Shishkin, from the papers at the Leningrad conference and from every recent Soviet pronouncement on ethics is the pervasive treatment of morality as a normative system, concerned with establishing principles and guiding behaviour. And this, as Marx often saw, cannot be anything more than the attempt to achieve the harmony of discord and harmony, to bind evil with chains that are themselves evil and that create nothing but further evil and further instability. The morality of freedom erects no principles and proclaims no obligations; it finds itself in the struggle with evils and not in their suppression.

Of recent ethical writers in the Soviet Union, Sharia certainly makes the most serious attempts to see the discipline which he places at the foundation of moral conduct as conscious, self-imposed discipline. But in his work, too, the discipline is not the free and coherent working of an activity; it is the set of requirements imposed by an external need:

In socialist society every right of the citizen which is real, and not formal, is linked with a corresponding duty. The right to work is linked with everyone’s duty to work ...

The supporters of ‘free love’ strove to support their anti-moral ‘theory’ by saying that since in bourgeois society a woman’s freedom in expressing her feelings is paralysed by her lack of economic rights, therefore in socialist society she must be free of every limitation. In saying this, the nihilists in the field of morality failed to see that socialism is not the weakening of the social bonds between people, but on the contrary, the strengthening of these bonds, and in so far as love is not only an emotional-psychological event, but necessarily includes in itself social relationships, it cannot be anarchic, but must subordinate itself to the developing socialist relationships. In other words, Marxism-Leninism, repudiating the compulsive discipline (it matters not whether the compulsion be legal or economic) of the society of exploiters, upheld by the stick in feudal society and by hunger in capitalist society, sets against this compulsive discipline conscious discipline, i.e., the conscious striving toward the up-building of Communist society.
(pp. 99-100.)

The pedestrian character of Soviet ethics, its tedious preaching of ends and duties, emerges even more clearly in Shishkin’s Osnovy, where he sets out the ‘principles and norms of Communist morality’. His section heads give an adequate idea of the contents:

1. The victory of socialism in the U.S.S.R. and the new conditions under which Communist morality is formed.

2. Collectivism as a principle of Communist morality:

(a) The superiority of collectivism over bourgeois individualism

(b) The social interest — the main interest of Soviet man

(c) The concept of duty, honour and conscience in Communist ethics

(d) Labour — a duty and matter of honour

3. Patriotism and internationalism:

(a) Attitude to the homeland as a moral problem

(b) Devotion to the homeland and to the international brotherhood of toilers — the main demand of Communist morality

4. Socialist humanism:

(a) Socialist humanism — the highest type of humanism

(b) Respect for the worth of man and care of man

(c) Hatred for enemies and vigilance an inescapable feature of socialist humanism

5. The moral foundations of friendship, marriage and family:

(a) Society and personal life

(b) Friendship

(c) Marriage and family

6. The moral qualities and character traits of the fighter for Communism

In all this, of course, there is not even a hint of the fundamental problems and difficulties of normative morality: no discussion of the logical and empirical basis of ‘obligation’, no consideration of the problems of moral ‘justification’, no hint of the necessary vagueness of normative principles. The true basis of moral ‘obligation’ in Communist society emerges clearly enough when Shiskin heads the seventh and final section of his book: ‘The Communist Party — the Mind, Honour and Conscience of Our Time.’