Karl Kautsky

Ethics and the Materialist Conception Of History

Chapter V
The Ethics of Marxism

IV. The Influence of the Social Instincts

a. Internationalism

Far more than the degree of strength does the sphere in which the social instincts are effective alter itself. The traditional Ethics looked on the moral law as the force which regulates the relations of man to man. Since it starts with the individual and not with the society it overlooks the fact certainly that the moral law does not regulate the intercourse of men with every other man, but simply with men of the same society. That it only holds good for these will be comprehensible when we recollect the origin of the social instincts. They are a means to increase the social cohesion, to add to the strength of society. The animal has social instincts only for members of his own herd, the other herds are more or less indifferent to him. Among social beasts of prey we find direct hostility to the members of other herds. Thus the pariah dogs of Constantinople in every street look very carefully out that no other dog comes into the district. It would be at once chased away or even torn to pieces.

In a similar relation do the human herds come, so soon as hunting and war rise in their midst. One of the most important forms of the struggle for existence is now for them the struggle of the herd against other herds of the same kind. The man who is not a member of the same society becomes a direct enemy. The social impulses do not only not hold good for him but directly against him. The stronger they are, the better does the tribe hold together against the common foe, so much the more energetically do they fight the latter. The social virtues, mutual help, self sacrifice, love of truth, etc., apply only to fellow tribesmen not for the members of another social organization.

It excited much resentment against me when I started these facts in the Neue Zeit and my statement was interpreted as if I had attempted to establish a special social democratic principle in opposition to the principles of the eternal moral law, which demands unconditional truthfulness to all men. In reality I have only spoken out that which has from the time when our forefathers became men lived as the moral law with- in our breasts, viz., that over against the enemy the social virtues are not required. There is no need, however, on that account that anybody should be especially indignant with the social democracy because there is no party which interprets the idea of society more widely than they, the party of internationalism, which draws all nations, all races into the sphere of their solidarity.

If the moral law applies only to members of our own society, its extent is still by no means fixed once for all. It grows far more in the same degree in which the division of labor progresses, the productivity of human labor grows as well as the means of human intercourse improve. The number of people increase whom a certain territory can support, who are bound to work in a certain territory for one another and with one another and who thus are socially tied together. But also the number of territories increase whose inhabitants live in connection with each other in order to work for each other and form a social union. Finally the range of the territories extends itself which enter into fixed social dependence on each other and form a permanent social organization with a common language, common customs, common laws.

After the death of Alexander of Macedonia the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean had formed already an international circle with an international language, – Greek. After the rise of the Romans all the lands round the Mediterranean became a still wider international circle, in which the national distinctions disappeared, and looked upon themselves as the representatives of humanity.

The new religion of the circle which took the place of the old national religions, was from the very beginning a world religion with one God, who embraced the entire world, and before whom all men were equal. This religion applied itself to all mankind, and declared them ail to be children of one God, all brothers.

But in fact the moral law held good even here only for the members of their own circle of culture for “Christians”, for “believers”. And the centre of gravity in Christianity came ever more and more towards the north and west during the migration of the peoples. In the South and East there formed itself a new circle of culture with its one morality, that of Islam, which forced its way forward in Asia and Africa, as the Christian in Europe.

Now, however, this last expanded itself thanks to capitalism, ever and more to a universal civilization, which embraced Buddhists, Moslems, Parsees, Brahmans, as well as Christians, who more and more ceased to be real Christians.

Thus there formed itself a foundation for the final realization of that moral conception already expressed by Christianity, though very prematurely, so that it could not be fulfilled, and which thus remained for the majority of Christians a simple phrase, the conception of the equality of men, a view that the social instincts, the moral virtues are to be exercised towards all men in equal fashion. This foundation of a general human morality is being formed not by a moral improvement of humanity, whatever we are to understand by that, but by the development of the productive forces of man, by the extension of the social division of human labor, the perfection of the means of intercourse. This new morality is, however, even today far from being a morality of all men even in the economically progressive countries. It is in essence even today the moral of the class conscious proletariat, that part of the proletariat which in its feeling and thinking has emancipated itself from the rest of the people and has formed its own morality in opposition to the Bourgeoisie.

Certainly it is capital which creates the material foundation for a general human morality, but it only creates the foundation by treading this morality continually under its feet. The capitalist nations of the circle of European Society spread this by widening their sphere of exploitation which is only possible by means of force. They thus create the foundations of a future universal solidarity of the nations by a universal exploitation of all nations, and those of the drawing in of all colonial lands into the circle of European culture by the oppression of all colonial lands with the worst and most forcible weapons of a most brutal barbarism.

The proletariat alone have no share in the capitalist exploitation; they fight it and must fight it and they will on the foundation laid down by capital of world intercourses and world commerce create a form of society, in which the equality of man before the moral law will become – instead of a mere pious wish – reality.

b. The Class Division.

But if the economic development thus tends to make wider the circle of society within which the social impulses and virtues have effect till it embraces finally the whole of humanity, it at the same time creates not only private interests within society which are capable of considerably diminishing the effect of these social impulses, for the time, but also special classes of society, which while within their own narrow circle greatly intensifying the strength of the social instincts and virtues, at the same time, however, can materially injure their value for the other members of the entire society or at least for the opposing sections or classes.

The formation of classes is also a product of the division of labor. Even the animal society is no homogeneous formation. In its bosom there are already various groups, which have a different importance in and for the community. Yet the group-formation still rests on the natural distinctions. There is in the first place that of sex, then of age. Within each sex, we find the groups of the children, the youths of both sexes, the adults, and finally the aged. The discovery of the tool has at first the effect of emphasizing still more the separation of certain of these Groups. Thus hunting and war fall to the men, who are more easily able to get about than the women, who are continually burdened with children. That and not any inferior power of self defence probably it was which made hunting and fighting a monopoly of man. Wherever in history and fable we come across female huntresses and warriors, they are always the unmarried. Women do not lack in strength, endurance or courage, but maternity is not easily to be reconciled with the insecure life of the hunter and warrior. As, however, motherhood drives the woman rather to continually stay in one place those duties fall to her which require a settled life, the planting of field fruits, the maintenance of the family hearth.

According to the importance which now hunting and war, on the other side agriculture and domestic life attain for society, and according to the share which each of the two sexes has in these employments, changes the importance and relative respect paid to the man and woman in the social life. But even the importance of the various ages depends on the method of production. Does hunting preponderate, which renders the sources of food very precarious, and from time to time necessitates great migrations, the old people become easily a burden to the society. They are often killed, sometimes even eaten. It is different when the people are settled; the breeding of animals and agriculture produce a more plentiful return. Now the old people can remain at home and there is no lack of food for them. Now is, however, at the same time a great sum of experiences and knowledge stored up, whose guardians, so long as writing was not discovered or become common property of the peoples are the old folk. They are the handers down of what might be called the beginning of science. Thus they are not now looked on as a painful burden, but honored as the bearers of a higher wisdom. Writing and printing deprive the old people of the privilege to incorporate in their persons the sum of all experiences and traditions of the society. The continual revolutionizing of all experience, which is the characteristic feature of the modern system of production, makes the old traditions even hostile to the new. The latter counts without any further ado as the better, the old as antiquated and hence bad. The old only receives sympathy, it enjoys no longer any prestige. There is now no higher praise for an old man than that he is still young and still capable of taking in new ideas.

As the respect paid to the sexes, so does the respect paid to the various ages alter in society with the various methods of production.

The progressive division of labor brings further distinctions within each sex, most among the men. The woman is in the first place more and more tied to the household whose range diminishes, instead of growing, as ever more branches of production break away from it, become independent and a domain of the men. Technical progress, division of labor, the separation into trades was limited till last century almost exclusively to men; the household and the woman have been only slightly affected by these changes.

The more this separation into different professions advances, the more complicated does the social organism become, whose organs they form. The nature and method of their co-operation in the fundamental social process, with other words the method of production, has nothing of chance about it. It is quite independent of the will of the individuals, and is necessarily determined by the given material conditions. Among these the technical factor is again the most Important, and that phase whose development affects the method of production. But it is not the only one.

Let us take an example. The materialist conception of history has been often understood as if certain technical conditions of itself meant a certain method of production, nay, even certain social and political forms. As that, however, is not exact, since we find the same tools in various states of society, consequently the materialist conception of history is false and the social relations are not determined by the technical conditions. The objection is right, but it does not hit the materialist conception of history, but its caricature, by a confusion of technical conditions and method of production.

It has been said for instance, the plough forms the foundation of the peasant economy. But manifold are the social circumstances in which this appears!

Certainly! But let us look a little more closely. What brings about the deviations of the various forms of society which arise on the peasant foundations.

Let us take for example a peasantry, which lives on the banks of a great tropical or subtropical river, which periodically floods its banks, bringing either decay or fruitfulness for the soil. Water dams, etc., will be required to keep the water back here and to guide it there. The single village is not able to carry out such works by itself. A number of them must co-operate, and supply laborers, common officials must be appointed, with a commission to set the labor going for making and maintaining the works. The bigger the undertaking, the more villages must take a part, the greater the number of the forced laborers, the greater the special knowledge required to conduct such works, so much the greater the power, and knowledge of the leading officials compared with the rest of the population. Thus there grows on the foundation of a peasant economy a priest or official class as in the river plains of the Nile, the Euphrates or the Whang-Ho.

We find another species of development where a flourishing peasant economy has settled in fruitful, accessible lands in the neighborhood of robbers, nomadic tribes. The necessity of guarding themselves against these nomads forces the peasants to form a force of guards, which can be done in various manners. Either a part of the peasant applies itself to the trade of arms, and separates itself from the others who yield them services in return, or the robber neighbors are induced by payment of a tribute to keep the peace and to protect their new proteges from other robbers, or finally the robbers conquer the land and remain as lords over the peasantry, on whom they lay a tribute, for which, however they provide a protective force. The result is always the same: the rise of a new feudal nobility which rules and exploits the peasants.

Occasionally the first and second methods of development unite, then we have beside a priest and official class a warrior caste.

Again quite differently does the peasantry develop on a sea with good harbors, which favor sea voyages and bring them closer to other coasts with well to do populations. By the side of agriculture, fishery arises, fishery which soon passes over into sea-piracy and sea commerce. At a particularly suitable spot for a harbor is gathered together plunder and merchants’ goods and there is formed a town of rich merchants. Here the peasant has a market for his goods, there arise for him money receipts, but also the expenditure of money, money obligations, debts. Soon he is the debtor of the town money proprietor.

Sea piracy and sea commerce as well as sea wars bring, however, a plentiful supply of slaves into the country. The town money owners instead of exploiting their peasant debtors any farther, go to work to drive them from their possessions, to unite these into great plantations and to introduce slave work for peasant, without any change being required in the tools and instruments of agriculture.

Finally we see a fourth type of peasant development in inaccessible mountain regions. The soil is there poor and difficult to cultivate. By the side of the agriculture, the breeding of stock retains the preponderance; nevertheless both are not sufficient to sustain a great increase of population. At the foot of the mountains fruitful, well tilled lands tempt them. The mountain peasants will make the attempt to conquer these and exploit them, or where they meet with resistance to hire out their superfluous population as paid soldiers. Their experience in war, in combination with the poverty and inaccessibility of their land serves to guard it against foreign invaders, to whom in any case their poverty offers no great temptation. There the old peasant democracy still maintains when all around all the peasantry have long become dependent on Feudal Lords, Priests, Merchants and usurers. Occasionally a primitive democracy of that kind itself tyrannizes and explores a neighboring country which they have conquered, in marked contradiction to their own highly valued liberty. Thus the old cantons of the fatherland of William Tell exercised through their Bailiffs in Tessin in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a rule, whose crushing weight could compare with that of the mythical Gessler.

It will be seen that very different methods of production are compatible with the peasant economy. How are these differences to be explained? The opponents of the materialist conception of history trace them back to force, or again to the difference of the ideas which take form at various periods in the various peoples.

Now it is certain that in the erection of all these methods of production force played a great part, and Marx called it the midwife of every new society. But whence comes this role of force, how does it come that one section of the people conquers with it, and the other not, and that the force produces this and not other results? To all these questions the force theory has no answer to give. And equally by the theory of ideas does it remain a mystery where the ideas come from which lead to freedom in the mountain country, to priest rule in the river valley land, to money and slave economy on the shores of the sea and in hilly undulating countries to feudal serfdom.

We have seen that these differences in the development of the same peasant system rest on differences in the natural and social surroundings in which this system is placed. According to the nature of the land, according to the description of its neighbors will the peasant system of economy be the foundation for very different social forms. These special social forms become then side by side with the natural factors, further foundations, which give a peculiar form to the development based on them. Thus the Germans found when they burst in on the Roman Empire during the migration of the peoples, the Imperial Government with its bureaucracy, the municipal system, the Christian Church as social conditions, and these, as well as they could, they incorporated into their system.

All these geographical and historical conditions have to be studied, if the particular method of production in a land at a particular time is to be understood. The knowledge of the technical conditions alone does not suffice.

It will be seen that the materialist conception of history is not such a simple formula as its critics usually conceive it to be. The examples here given show us, however, also how class differences and class antagonisms are produced by the economic development.

Differences not simply between individuals but also between individual groups within the society existed already in the animal world as we have remarked already, distinctions in the strength, the reputation, perhaps even of the material position of individuals and groups. Such distinctions are natural and will be hardly likely to disappear even in a socialist society. The discovery of tools, the division of labor, and its consequences, in short the economic development contributes still further to increase such difference or even to create new. In any case, they cannot exceed a certain narrow limit, so long as the social labor does not yield a surplus over that necessary to the maintenance of the members of the society. As long as that is not the case, no idlers can be maintained at the cost of society, none can get considerably more in social products than the other. At the same time, however, there arise at this very stage owing to the increasing enmity of the tribes to each other and the bloody method of settling their differences, as well as through the common labor and the common property so many new factors, through which the social instincts are strengthened that the small jealousies and differences arising between the families, the different degrees of age or the various callings can just as little bring a split in the community as that between individuals. Despite the beginnings of division of labor which are to be found there, human society was never more closely bound up together or more in unison than at the time of the primitive gentile co-operative society which preceded the beginning of class antagonisms.

The things, however, alter, so soon as social labor begins, in consequence of its necessary productivity, to produce a surplus. Now it becomes possible for single individuals and professions to secure for themselves permanently a greater share in the social product than the others can secure. Single individuals, only seldom temporarily and as a matter of exception will be able to achieve that for themselves alone; on the other hand it is very obvious that any class specially favored in any particular manner by the circumstances, for example such as are conferred by special knowledge or special powers of self defence, can acquire the strength to permanently appropriate the social surplus for themselves. Property in the products is narrowly bound up with property in the means of production, who possesses the latter can dispose of the former. The endeavors to monopolize the social surplus by the privileged class produce in it the desire to monopolize and take sole possession of the means of production. The forms of this monopoly can be very diverse, either common ownership of the ruling class, or caste, or private property of the individual families or individuals of this class.

In one way or another the mass of the working people becomes disinherited, degraded to slaves, serfs, wage laborers; and with the common property in the means of production and their use in common is the strongest bond torn asunder which held primitive society together.

And where the social distinctions which managed to form themselves in the bosom of primitive society kept within narrow limits, now the class distinctions which can form themselves have practically no limit. They can grow on the one side through the technical progress which increases the surplus of the product of the social labor over the amount necessary to the simple maintenance of society; on the other hand through the expansion of the community while the number of the exploiters remains the same or even decreases, so that the number of those working and producing surplus for each exploiter grows. In this way the class distinctions can enormously increase, and with them grow the social antagonisms.

In the degree in which this development advances society is more and more divided: the class struggle becomes the principal, most general and continuous form of the struggle of the individuals for life in human society; in the same degree the social instincts towards society as a whole lose strength, they become, however, so much the stronger within that class whose welfare is for the mass of the individuals always more and more identical with that of the commonweal.

But it is specially the exploited, oppressed and uprising classes in whom the class war thus strengthens the social instincts and virtues. And that because they are obliged to put their whole personality into this with much more intensity than the ruling classes, who are often in a position to leave their defence, be it with the weapons of war, be it with the weapons of the intellect, to hirelings. Besides that, however, the ruling classes are often deeply divided internally through the struggles between themselves for the social surplus and over the means of production. One of the strongest causes of that kind of division we have learnt in the battle of competition.

All these factors, which work against the social instincts, find none or little soil in the exploited classes. The smaller this soil, the less property that the struggling classes have, the more they are forced back on their own strength, the stronger do their members feel their solidarity against the ruling classes, and the stronger do their own social feelings towards their own class grow.


V. The Tenets of Morality

a. Custom and Convention

We have seen that the economic development introduces into the moral factors transmitted from the animal world an element of pronounced mutability, in that it gives a varying degree of force to the social instincts and virtues at different times, and also at the same time in different classes, that it, however, in addition widens and then again narrows down the scope within which the social impulses have effect, on the one side expanding its influence from the tiny tribe till it embraces the entire humanity, on the other side limiting it to a certain class within the society.

But the same economic development creates in addition a special moral factor, which did not exist at all in the animal world, and is the most changeable of all, since not only its strength but also its contents are subject to far reaching change. These are the tenets of morality.

In the animal world we find only strong moral feelings, but no distinct moral precepts which are addressed to the individual. That assumes that a language has been formed which can describe not only impressions but also things or at least actions, a language for whose existence in the animal world all signs fail, for which also a need first arises with the common work. Then is it possible to address distinct demands to the individual. Do these demands arise from individual and exceptional needs, then they will again disappear with the individual exceptional case. If on the other hand they have their origin in the social relations, they will revive again and again, so long as these relations last; and in the beginnings of society, where the development is very slow, one can allow hundreds of thousands of years for the endurance of particular social conditions. The social demands in the individual repeat themselves so often, and so regularly that they become a habit, of which the outline is finally inherited, as the tendency to peculiar kinds of hunting by the sporting dogs, so that certain suggestions suffice to arouse the habit in the descendants as well, also for instance the feeling of shame, the habit of covering certain portions of the body whose nude state appears immoral.

Thus arise demands on the individual in society, so much the more numerous, so much the more complicated it is, which demands finally by force of habit become without long consideration recognized as moral commands.

From this customary character many materialist Ethical writers have concluded that the entire being of morals rise alone on custom. With that it is nevertheless by no means exhausted. In the first place only such views become moral commands through habit which favor the consideration of the individual for the society, and regulate his conduct to other men. Ii it be brought against this, that there are individual vices which count as immoral, vet their original condemnation was certainly also in the interest of society. Thus for example, masturbation if general must prejudice the chance of securing a numerous progeny – and such a progeny appeared then when Malthus had not yet spoken, as one of the weightiest foundations of the well being and progress of society.

In the Bible (Genesis XXXVIII) Onan was killed by Jehovah, because he allowed his spermatazoa to fall to the ground instead of attending to his duty and having intercourse with the wife of his dead brother, so as to raise up seed for this latter.

The moral rules could only for this reason become customs because they met deep lying, ever returning social needs. Finally, however, a simple custom cannot explain the force of the feeling of duty, which often shows itself more powerful than all the instincts of self preservation. The customary element in morals only has the effect that certain rules are forthwith recognized as moral, but it does not produce the social instincts which compel the performance of already recognized moral laws.

Thus for example it is a matter of habit that counts it as disreputable, when a girl shows herself in her night gown to a man, even when this garment goes down to the feet, and takes in the neck, while it is not improper if a girl appears in the evening with a much uncovered bosom at a ball before all the world, or if she exhibits herself to the licentious gaze of men of the world at a watering place in a wet bathing gown. But only the force of the social instincts can bring it about that a strongly moral girl should at no price submit to that which convention, fashion, custom, in short society has once stamped as shameful, and that she should occasionally even prefer death itself to that which she regards as shame.

Other moralists have carried the idea of the moral regulations as simple customs still farther and described them as simple conventional fashions, basing this on the phenomenon that every nation, nay, each class, has its own particular moral conceptions which often stand in absolute contradiction to each other, that consequently an absolute moral law has no validity. It has been concluded from that that morality is only a changing fashion, which only the thoughtless philistine crowd respect, but which the overman can and must raise himself above as things that appertain to the ordinary herd.

But not only are the social instincts something absolutely not conventional, but something deeply grounded in human nature, the nature of man as a social animal; even the moral tenets are nothing arbitrary but arise from social needs.

It is certainly not possible in every case to fix the connection between certain moral conceptions and the social relations from which they arose. The individual takes moral precepts from his social surroundings without being aware of their social causes. The moral law becomes then habit to him, and appears to him as an emanation of his own spiritual being, given a priori to him, without any practical root. Only scientific investigation can gradually show up in a series of cases the relations between particular forms of society, and particular moral precepts, and then much remains dark. The social forms, from which moral principles arose which still hold good at a later period, often lie far back, in very primitive times. Besides that to understand a moral law, not only the social need must be understood which called it forth, but also the peculiar thought of the society which created it. Every method of production is connected not only with particular tools and particular social relations, but also with the particular content of knowledge, with particular powers of intelligence, a particular view of cause and effect, a particular logic, in short a particular form of thought. To understand earlier modes of thought is, however, uncommonly difficult, much more difficult than to understand the needs of another or his own society.

All the same, however, the connection between the tenets of morals and the social needs has been already proved by so many practical examples, that we can accept it as a general rule. If, however, this connection exists then an alteration of society must necessitate an alteration in “any moral precepts. Their change is thus not only nothing strange, it would be much more strange if with the change of the cause the effect did not also change. These changes are necessary, for that very reason necessary because every form of society requires certain moral precepts suited to its condition. How diverse and changing are the moral rules is well known. Hence one example suffices to illustrate a morality differing from the present day European.

Fridtjof Nansen gives us in the tenth chapter of his Esquimaux Life a very fascinating picture of Esquimaux morals, from which I take a few passages.

One of the most beautiful and marked features in the character of the Esquimo is certainly their honorableness ... For the Esquimo it has especial value that he should be able to rely on his fellows and neighbors. In order, however, that his mutual confidence, without which common action in the battle for life is impossible, should continue, it is necessary that he should act honorably to others as well ... For the same reasons they do not lie readily to each other, especially not the men. A touching proof of that is the following incident related by Dalager: “If they have to describe to each other anything, they are very careful not to paint it more beautiful than it deserves. Nay, if any one wants to buy anything which he has not seen, the seller describes the thing, however much he may wish to sell it, always as something less good than it is.

The morals of advertising are unknown to the Esquimaux as yet. Certainly that applies to their intercourse with each other. To strangers they are less strict.

“Fisticuff fights and that sort of ruffianism is not to be seen among them. Murder is also a great rarity and where it happens is not a consequence of economic quarrels but of love affairs.

“They consider it dreadful to kill a fellowman. War is hence quite incomprehensible to them and abominable; their language has not even a word for it, and soldiers and officers who have been trained to the calling of killing people are to them simply butchers of men.

“Those of our commandments, against which the Greenlanders oftenest sin is the sixth. Virtue and chastity do not stand in great esteem in Greenland. Many look on it (on the west coast) as no great shame if an unmarried girl has children. While we were in Gothhael, two girls there were pregnant, but they in no way concealed it, and seemed from this evident proof that they were not looked down upon to be almost proud. Gut even of the east coast Helm says that it is there no shame if an unmarried girl has children.

“Egede also says that the women look on it as an especial bit of luck and a great honor, to have intimate connection with an Angekok, that is, one of their Prophets, and wise men, and adds – even many men are very glad and will pay the Angekok for sleeping with their wives, especially if they themselves cannot have children by them.

“The freedom of Esquimo women is thus very different to that appertaining to the Germanic women. The reason certainly lies in the fact that while the maintenance of the inheritance, of the race and family has always played a great role by the Germans, this has no importance for the Esquimos because he has nothing to inherit, and for him the main point is to have children ...

“We naturally look on this morality as bad. With that, however, is by no means said that it is so for the Esquimos. We must absolutely guard against condemning from our standpoint views which have been developed through many generations and after long experience by a people, however much they contradict our own. The views of good and bad are namely extraordinarily different on this earth. As an example I might quote, that when this Egede had spoken to an Esquimo girl of love of God and our neighbor, she said ‘I have proved that I love my neighbor because an old woman who was ill and could not die, begged me that I would take her for a payment to the steep cliff, from which those always are thrown who can no more live. But because I love my people, I took her there for nothing and threw her down from the rocks.’

“Egede thought that this was a bad act, and said that she had murdered a human being. She said no, she had had great sympathy with the old woman and had wept as she fell. Are we to call this a good or bad act?”

We have seen that the necessity of killing old and sick members of society very easily arises with a limited food supply and this killing becomes then signalized as a moral act.

“When the same Egede at another time said that God punished the wicked, an Esquimo said to him he also belonged to those who punished the wicked, since he had killed three old women who were witches.

“The same difference in the conception of good and bad is to be seen in regard to the sixth commandment. The Esquimo puts the commandment: ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ higher than chastity. He has every reason for that as his race is by nature less prolific.”

Finally a quotation from a letter sent by a converted Esquimaux to Paul Egede who worked in the middle of the 18th century in Greenland as a missionary and found the Esquimaux morals almost untouched by European influence. This Eskimo had heard of the colonial wars, between the English and Dutch and expresses his horror over this inhumanity.

“If we have only so much food that we can satisfy our hunger and get enough skins to keep out the cold, we are contented, and thou thyself knowest that we let the next day look after itself. We would not on that account carry war on the sea, even if we could. We can say the sea that washes our coasts belongs to us as well as the walruses, whales, seals and salmon swimming in it; yet we have no objection when others take what they require from the great supply, as they require it. We have the great luck not to be so greedy by nature as them ... It is really astonishing, my dear Paul! Your people know that there is a God, the ruler and guider of all things, that after this life they will be either happy or damned, according as they have behaved themselves, and yet they live as though they had been ordered to be wicked, and as if sin would bring them advantage and honor. My countrymen know nothing either of God or Devil and yet they behave respectably, deal kindly and as friends with each other, tell each other everything and create their means of subsistence in common.”

It is the opposition of the morality of a primitive communism to capitalist morality which appears here. But still another distinction arises. In the Eskimo society the theory and practice of morality agree with one another; in cultivated society a division exists between the two. The reason for that we will soon learn.

b. The System of Production and Its Superstructure

The moral rules alter with the society, yet not uninterruptedly and not in the same fashion and degree as the social needs. They become promptly recognized and felt as rules of conduct because they have become habit. Once they have taken root as such they can for a long time lead an independent life, while technical progress advances, and therewith the development of the method of production and the transformation of the social needs goes on.

It is with the principles of morality as with the rest of the complicated sociological superstructure which raises itself on the method of production. It can break away from its foundation and lead an independent life for a time.

The discovery of this fact has overjoyed all those elements who could not escape the influence of the Marxian thought, but to whom nevertheless the consequences of the economic development are extremely awkward, who in the manner of Kant would like to smuggle in the spirit as an independent driving power in the development of the social organism. To these the discovery of the fact that the intellectual factors of society can temporarily work independently in it was very convenient. With that they hoped to have finally found the wished for reciprocal action – the economic factor works on the spirit and this on the economic factor, both were to rule the social development, either so that at one period the economic factor, at another again the spiritual force drives the society forwards, or in the manner that both together and side by side produce a common result, that in other words our will and wishes can at least occasionally break through the hard economic necessity of their own strength and can change it.

Undoubtedly there is a reciprocal action between the economic basis and its spiritual superstruction – morality, religion, art, etc. We do not speak here of the intellectual influence of inventions; that belongs to the technical conditions, in which the spirit plays a part by the side of the tool; technic is the conscious discovery and application of tools by thinking men.

Like the other ideological factors morality can also advance the economic and social development. Just in this lies its social importance. Since certain social rules arise from certain social needs they will render the social co-operation so much the more easy, the better they are adapted to the society which creates them.

Morality thus reacts on the social life. But that only holds good so long as it is dependent from the latter, as it meets the social needs from which it sprang.

So soon as morality begins to lead a life independent of society, so soon as it is no longer controlled by the latter, the reaction takes on another character. The further it is now developed the more is that development purely logical and formal. As soon as it is separated from the influence of the outer world it can no more create new conceptions, but only arrange the already attained ones so that the contradictions disappear from them. Getting rid of the contradictions, winning a unitary conception, solving all problems which arise from the contradictions, that is the work of the thinking spirit. With that it can, however, only secure the intellectual superstructure already set up, not rise superior to itself. Only the appearance of new contradictions, new problems can affect a new development. The human spirit does not, however, create contradictions from out of its own inner being; they are produced in it only by the impress of the surrounding world on it.

So soon as the moral principles grow independent they cease to be in consequence, an element of social progress. They ossify, become a conservative element, an obstacle to progress. Thus something can happen in the human society that is impossible in the animal; morality can become instead of an indispensable social bond, the means of an intolerable restraint on social life. That is also a reciprocal action but not one in the sense of our anti-materialist moralists.

The contradictions between distinct moral principles and distinct social needs can arrive at a certain height in primitive society; they then become, however, still deeper with the appearance of class antagonisms. If in the society without classes, the adherence to particular moral principles is only a matter of habit, it only requires for their supersedence that the force of habit be overcome. From now on the maintenance of particular moral principles becomes a matter of interest, often of a very powerful interest. And now appear also weapons of force, of physical compulsion, to keep down the exploited classes, and this means of compulsion is placed also at the service of “morality,” to secure obedience to moral principles which are in the interest of the ruling classes.

The classless society needs no such compulsory weapons. Certainly even in it the social instincts do not always suffice to achieve the observance by every individual of the moral code; the strength of the social impulses is very different in the different individuals, and just as different that of the other instincts, those of self maintenance and reproduction. The first do not always win the upper hand. But as a means of compulsion, of punishment, of warning, for others, public opinion of the society, suffices in such cases for the classless society. This does not create in us the moral law, the feeling of duty. Conscience works in us when no one sees us and the power of public opinion is entirely excluded; it can even under circumstances in a society filled with class antagonisms and contradictory moral codes force us to defy public opinion.

But public opinion works in a classless society as a sufficient weapon of policy to secure the public obedience to moral codes. The individual is so weak compared to society, that he has not the strength to defy their unanimous voice. This has so crushing an effect, that it needs no further means of compulsion or punishment, to secure the undisturbed course of the social life. Even today in the class society we see that the public opinion of their own class or where that has been abandoned of the class or party which they form, is more powerful than the compulsory weapons of the state. Prison, poverty and death are preferred by people to shame.

But the public opinion of one class does not work on the opposite class. Certainly society can, so long as there are no class antagonisms in it, hold the individual in check through the power of its opinion and force obedience to its laws, when the social instincts in the breast of the individual do not suffice. But public opinion fails where it is not the individual against society but class against class. Thus the ruling class must apply other weapons of compulsion if they are to prevail, means of superior physical or economic might, of superior organization, or even of superior intelligence. To the soldiers, police, and judges are joined the priests as an additional means of rule, and it is just the ecclesiastical organization to whom the special task falls of conserving the traditional morality. This connection between religion and morality is achieved so much easier as the new religions which appear at the time of the decay of the primitive communism and the gentile society, stand in strong opposition to the ancient nature religions, whose roots reach back to the old classless period, and which know no special priest caste. In the old religions Divinity and Ethics are not joined together. The new religions on the other hand grow on the soil of that philosophy in which Ethics and the belief in God are most intimately bound up together, the one factor supporting the other. Since then religion and Ethic have been intimately bound together as a weapon of rule. Certainly the moral law is a product of the social nature of man; certainly the moral code of the time is the product of particular social needs; certainly have neither the one nor the other anything to do with religion. But that kind of morals, which must be maintained for the people in the interests of the ruling class, that requires religion badly and the entire ecclesiastical organism for its support. Without this it would soon go to pieces.

c. Old and New

The longer, however, the outlived moral standards remain in force, while the economic development advances and creates new social needs, which demand new moral standards, so much the greater will be the contradiction between the ruling morals of society and the life and action of its members.

But this contradiction shows itself in the different classes in different manners. The conservative classes, those whose existence rests on the old social conditions, cling firmly to the old morality. But only in theory. In practice they cannot escape the influence of the new social conditions. The well known contradiction between moral theory and practice begins here. It seems to many a natural law of morals; that its demands should be something desirable but unrealizable. The contradiction between theory and practice in morality can, however, here again take two forms. Classes and individuals full of a sense of their own strength ride roughshod over the demands of the traditional morality, whose necessity they certainly recognize for others. Classes and individuals which feel themselves weak, transgress secretly against the moral codes, which they publicly preach. Thus this phase leads according to the historical reiteration of the decaying classes either to cynicism or hyprocrisy. At the same time, however, there disappears, as we have seen, very early in this very class the power of the social instincts in consequence of the growth of private interests, as well as the possibility of allowing their place in the coming battles to be taken by hirelings wherever they avoid entering personally into the fray.

All that produces in conservative, or ruling classes, more phenomena which we sum up as immorality.

Materialist moralists, to whom the moral codes are simple conventional fashions, deny the possibility of an immorality of that kind as a social phenomenon. As all morality is relative, that which is called immorality is simply a deviating kind of morality.

On the other hand idealist moralists conclude from the fact that there are entire immoral classes and societies that there must be a moral code eternal and independent of time and space; a standard independent of the changing social conditions on which we can measure the morals of every society and class.

Unfortunately, however, it is that element of human morality which, if not independent of time and space is yet older than the changing social relations, the social instinct, is just that which the human morality has in common with the animal. What, however, is specifically human in morality, the moral codes, is subject to continual change. That does not prove all the same, that a class or a social group cannot be immoral, it proves simply that so far at least as the moral standards are concerned, there is just as little an absolute morality as an absolute immorality. Even the immorality is in this respect a relative idea. Only the lack of mere social impulses and virtues, which man has inherited from the social animals, is to be regarded as absolute immorality.

If we look on the other hand on immorality as an offence against the laws of morality, then it implies no longer the divergence from a distinct standard, holding good for all times and places, but the contradiction of the moral practice to its own moral principles, it implies the transgression against moral laws which people themselves recognize and put forward as necessary. It is thus nonsense to declare particular moral principles of any people or class, which are recognized as such, to be immoral simply because they contradict our moral code. Immorality can never be more than a deviation from our own moral code, never from a strange one. The same phenomenon, say of free sexual intercourse or of indifference to property can in one case be the product of moral depravity, in a society where a strict monogamy and the sanctity of property are recognized as necessary; in another case it can be the highly moral product of a healthy social organism which requires for its social needs neither property in a particular woman nor that in particular means of consumption and production.

d. The Moral Ideal

If, however, the growing contradiction between the changing social conditions and the stagnating morality of the conservatives, that is, the ruling classes, tends to growing immorality and shows itself in an increase of hypocrisy and cynicism, which often goes hand in hand with a weakening of the social impulses, so does it lead to quite other results in the rising and exploited class. Their interests are in complete antagonism to the social foundation, which created the ruling morality. They have not the smallest reason to accept it, they have every ground to oppose it. The more conscious they become of their antagonism to the ruling social order, the more will their moral indignation grow as well, the more will they confront to the old traditional morality a new moral, which they are about to make the morality of society as a whole. Thus comes up in the uprising classes a moral ideal, which grows ever bolder, the more they win in strength. And at the same time, as we have already seen, the power of the social instincts in the same classes will be especially developed by means of the class struggle so that with the daring of the new moral ideal the enthusiasm for the same also increases. Thus the same evolution which produces in conservative or down going classes increasing immorality produces in the rising classes a mass of phenomena which we sum up under the name of ethical idealism, which is not, however, to be confused with the philosophical idealism. The very uprisings classes are indeed often inclined to philosophical materialism which the declining class oppose from the moment when they become conscious that reality has spoken the sentence of death over them and feel that they can only look for salvation from supernatural powers divine or ethical.

The content of the new moral ideal is not always very clear. It does not emerge from any scientific knowledge of the social organism, which is often quite unknown to the authors of the ideal, but from a deep social need, a burning desire, an energetic will for something other than the existing, for something which is the opposite of the existing. And thus also this moral ideal is fundamentally only something purely negative, nothing more than opposition to the existing hypocrisy.

So long as class rule has existed, the ruling morality has guarded wherever a sharp class antagonism has been formed, slavery, inequality, exploitation. And thus the moral ideal of the uprising classes in historical times has always had the same appearance, always that which the French Revolution summed up with the words, Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity. It would seem as if this was the ideal implanted in every human breast independent of time and space, as if this were the task of the human race to strive from its beginning for the same moral ideal, as if the evolution of man consisted in the gradual approach to this ideal which continually looms before them.

But if we examine more closely, we find that the agreement of the moral ideal of the various historical epochs is only a very superficial one and that behind there lie great differences of social aims, which correspond to the differences of the social situation at the time.

If we compare Christianity, the French Revolution, the Social Democracy today we find that Liberty and Equality for all meant something quite different according to their attitude towards property and production. The primitive Christians demanded equality of property in the manner that they asked for its equal division for purpose of consumption by ail. And under Freedom they understood the emancipation from all work as is the lot of the toilers of the field who neither toil nor spin and yet enjoy their life.

The French Revolution again understood by equality, the equality of property rights. Private property it declared to be sacred. And true freedom was for it the freedom to apply property in economic life, according to pleasure in the most profitable manner.

Finally the Social Democracy neither swears by private property nor does it demand its division. It demands its socialization, and the equality which it strives for is the equal rights of all in the products of social labor.

Again the social freedom which it asks for is neither freedom to dispose arbitrarily of the means of production and to produce at will, but the limitation of the necessary labor through the gathering in of those capable of working and through the most extended application of labor-saving machinery and methods. In this way the necessary labor which cannot be free but must be socially regulated can be reduced to a minimum for all and to all a sufficient time assured of freedom, for free artistic and scientific activity, for free enjoyment of life. Social freedom – we do not speak here of political – through the greatest possible shortening of the period of necessary labor: that is freedom as meant by the social democracy.

It will be seen that the same moral ideal of Freedom and Equality can embrace very different social ideals. The external agreement of the moral ideals of different times and countries is, however, not the result of a moral law independent of time and space, which springs up in man from a supernatural world, but only the consequence of the fact that despite all social differences the main outlines of class rule in human society have always been the same.

All the same a new moral ideal cannot simply arise from the class antagonism. Even within the conservative classes there may be individuals who develop with their class socially only loose ties and no class consciousness. With that, however, they possess strong social instincts and virtues, which makes them hate all hypocrisy and cynicism, and they dispose of a great intelligence which shows them clearly the contradiction between the traditional moral code and the social needs. Such individuals are bound also to come to the point of lifting up the new moral ideal. But whether this new ideal shall obtain social force, depends upon whether they result in class ideals or not. Only the motive power of the class struggle can work fruitfully on the moral ideal. Because only the class struggle and not the single handed endeavors of self interested people possesses the strength to develop society farther and to meet the needs of the higher developed method of production. And so far as the moral ideal can in any degree be realized it can be attained only through an alteration of society.

A peculiar fatality has ruled hitherto that the moral ideal should never be reached. That will be easily understood when we consider its origin. The moral ideal is nothing else than the complex of wishes and endeavors which are called forth by the opposition to the existing state of affairs. As the motor power of the class struggle is a means to collect the forces of the uprising classes to the struggle against the existing and to spur them on, it is a powerful lever in the overturning of this existing. But the new social conditions, which come in the place of the old, do not depend on the form of the moral ideal but from the given material conditions, the technical conditions, the natural milieu, the nature of the neighbors and predecessors of the existing society, etc.

A new society call thus easily diverge a considerable way from the moral idea of those who brought it about, so much the more the less the moral indignation was allied with knowledge of the material conditions. And thus the ideal ended continually with a disillusionment; proving itself to be an illusion after it had done its historical duty and had worked as an impulse in the destruction of the old.

We have seen above how in the conservative classes the opposition between moral theory and practice arises, so that morality appears to them as that which everybody demands but nobody practices, something which is beyond our strength, what it is only given to supernatural powers to carry out. Here we see in the revolutionary classes a different kind of antagonism arise between moral theory and practice; the antagonism between the moral ideal and the reality created by the social revolution. Here again morality appears as something which everybody strives for but nobody obtains – as in fact the unattainable for earthly beings. No wonder that then the moralists think that morality has a supernatural origin and that our animal being which clings to the earth is responsible for the fact that we can only gaze wistfully at its picture from afar without being able to arrive at it.

From this heavenly height morality is drawn down to earth by the historical materialism. We make acquaintance with its animal origin and see how its changes in human society are conditioned by the changes which this has gone through, driven on by the development of the technic. And the moral ideal is revealed in its purely negative character as opposition to the existing moral order, and its importance is recognized as the motor power of the class struggle as a means to collect and inspire the forces of the revolutionary classes. At the same time, however, the moral ideal will be deprived of its power to direct our policy. Not from our moral ideal, but from distinct material conditions does the policy depend which the social development takes. These material conditions have already at earlier periods to a certain extent determined the moral will, the social aims of the uprising classes, but for the most part unconsciously. Or if a conscious directing social knowledge was already to hand, as in the 18th century, it worked all the same unsystematically and not consistently at the formation of the social aims.

It was the materialist conception of history which has first completely deposed the moral ideal as the directing factor of the social evolution, and has taught us to deduce our social aims solely from the knowledge of the material foundations. And with that it has shown for the first time the way through which it can be avoided, that the revolutionary reality should not come up to the social ideal, how illusions and disappointments are to be avoided. Whether they can be really avoided depends upon the degree of the insight acquired into the laws of development and of the movements of the social organism, its forces and organs.

With that the moral ideal will not be deprived of its influence in society; this influence will simply be reduced to its proper dimensions. Like the social and the moral instinct, the moral ideal is not an aim but a force or a weapon in the social struggle for life; the moral ideal is a special weapon for the peculiar circumstances of the class war.

Even the Social Democracy as an organization of the Proletariat in its class struggle cannot do without the moral ideal, the moral indignation against exploitation and class rule. But this ideal has nothing to find in scientific socialism, which is the scientific examination of the laws of the development and movement of the social organism, for the purpose of knowing the necessary tendencies and aims of the proletariat class struggle.

Certainly in Socialism the student is always a fighter as well, and no man can artificially cut himself in two parts, of which the one has nothing to do with the other. Thus even with Marx occasionally in his scientific research there breaks through the influence of a moral ideal. But he always endeavors and rightly to banish it where he can. Because the moral ideal becomes a source of error in science, when it takes it on itself to point out to it its aims. Science has only to do with the recognition of the necessary. It can certainly arrive at prescribing a shall, but this dare only come up as a consequence of the insight into the necessary. It must decline to discover a “shall” which is not to be recognized as a necessity founded in the world of phenomena. The Ethic must always be only an object of science; this has to study the moral instincts as well as the moral ideals and explain them; it cannot take advice from them as to the results at which it is to arrive. Science stands above Ethics, its results are just as little moral or immoral as necessity is moral or immoral.

All the same even in the winning and making known scientific knowledge morality is not got rid of. New scientific knowledge implies often the upsetting of traditional and deeply rooted conceptions which had grown to a fixed habit. In societies which include class antagonisms, new scientific knowledge, especially that of social conditions, implies in addition, however, damage to the interests of particular classes. To discover and propagate scientific knowledge which is incompatible with the interests of the ruling classes, is to declare war on them. It assumes not simply a high degree of intelligence, but also ability and willingness to fight as well as independence from the ruling classes, and before all a strong moral feeling: strong social instincts, a ruthless striving for knowledge and to spread the truth with a warm desire to help the oppressed uprising classes.

But even this last wish has a misleading tendency if it does not play a simple negative part, as repudiation of the claims of the ruling conceptions to validity, and as a spur to overcoming the obstacles which the opposing class interests bring against the social development but aspires to rise above that and to take the direction laying down certain aims which have to be attained through Social Study.

Even though the conscious aim of the class struggle in Scientific Socialism has been transformed from a moral into an economic aim it loses none of its greatness. Since what appeared to all social innovators hitherto as a moral ideal, and what could not be attained by them, for this the economic conditions are at length given, that ideal we can now recognize for the first time in the history of the world as a necessary result of the economic development, viz.: the abolition of class. Not the abolition of all professional distinctions. Not the abolition of division of labor, but certainly the abolition of all social distinctions and antagonisms which arise from the private property in the means of production and from the exclusive chaining down of the mass of the people in the function of material production. The means of production have become so enormous, that they burst today the frame of private property. The productivity of labor is grown so huge that today already a considerable diminution of the labor time is possible for all workers. These grow the foundations for the abolition not of the division of labour, not of the professions, but for the antagonism of rich and poor, exploiters and exploited, ignorant and wise.

At the same time, however, the division of labor is so far developed as to embrace that territory which remained so many thousands of years closed to it, the family hearth. The woman is freed from it and drawn into the realm of division of labor, so long a monopoly of the men. With that naturally the natural distinctions do not disappear which exist between the sexes; it can also allow many social distinctions, as well as many a distinction in the moral demands which are made to them to continue to exist or even revive such, but it will certainly make all those distinctions disappear from state and society which arise out of the fact that the woman is tied down to the private household duties and excluded from the callings of the divided labor. In this sense we shall see not simply the abolition of the exploitation of one class by another, but the abolition of the subjection of woman by man.

And at the same time world commerce attains such dimensions, the international economic relations become so close that therewith the foundation is laid for superseding private property in the means of production, the overcoming of national antagonisms, the end of war, and armaments, and for the probability of permanent peace between the nations.

Where is such a moral ideal which opens such splendid vistas? And yet they are won from sober economic considerations and not from intoxication through the moral ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity, justice, humanity!

And these outlooks are no mere expectations of conditions which only ought to come, which we simply wish and will, but outlooks at conditions which must come, which are necessary. Certainly not necessary in the fatalist sense, that a higher power will present them to us of itself, but necessary, unavoidable in the sense, that the inventors improve technic and the capitalists in their desire for profit revolutionize the whole economic life, as it is also inevitable that the workers aim for shorter hours of labor and higher wages, that they organize themselves, that they fight the capitalist class and its state, as it is inevitable that they aim for the conquest of political power and the overthrow of capitalist rule. Socialism is inevitable because the class struggle and the victory of the proletariat is inevitable.


Last updated on 26.12.2003