George Novack

Liberal Morality

The Controversy Between John Dewey and Leon Trotsky

(July 1965)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.26 No.4, Fall 1965, pp.118-124. [1*]
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

American liberals are convinced that their positions are far stronger than those of the Marxists on both the lofty plane of ethical theory and in practical morality. They have persuaded many others that this is so. Stalin’s terror regime, climaxed by the frame-up executions of the Old Bolsheviks in the Moscow Trials, gave the democrats a field day to parade their moral superiority not only over the Stalinists but also over the revolutionary socialists who were their victims. In the late 1930’s a debate boiled up in various intellectual circles throughout the globe on the problem of the relations between ethics and politics until the blood-soaked exhibition of morality presented by capitalist imperialism in the Second World War cut it short.

The hearings held in April, 1937, by the International Commission of Inquiry into the Moscow Trials at Coyoacan, Mexico, had touched upon these questions in passing. Soon afterward Trotsky wrote an essay, Their Morals and Ours, which appeared in The New International of February, 1938. The philosopher-educator John Dewey, head of the Commission which had cleared Trotsky of the charges against him, wrote a criticism of Trotsky’s ideas entitled Means and Ends which was printed in the same magazine in August of that year. The press of other work prevented Trotsky from undertaking the rejoinder he wanted to make to Dewey’s arguments.

This inconclusive debate between the foremost spokesmen for pragmatism and Marxism was a rare direct confrontation of the fundamental views of the two philosophies on the moral aspects of social and political action. This question has not lost its pertinence or ceased to command the attention of liberals and rebels in the twenty-seven years since. Indeed, it is more timely today than then.

Problems of Ethics

Before coming to grips with the issues of method raised in that ideological encounter, it may be helpful to survey the fundamental problems involved in formulating a critical and rational ethics.

Theoreticians of morality confront two major difficulties in arriving at a rational foundation or scientific explanation for standards of conduct. One is the extreme variability in the notions of right and wrong through the ages. It would be hard to find a human action which has not been subject to opposing moral judgments. Devouring human beings is today universally condemned – and yet it was universally practiced in primeval times. Some food-gathering and hunting tribes put old people to death; nowadays we strive to prolong their lives.

Freedom in sexual relations which is today illegal was at one time prevalent and approved. Although it is considered wrong to lie, such paragons of ethics as doctors dispute, in general and concrete cases, whether it is right to tell the truth about his condition to a patient stricken with a fatal disease. The grossly unequal ownership and distribution of wealth which is taken for granted under capitalism would have been condemned by the primitive Indians. These illustrations could be multiplied.

Even worse for seekers of the absolute in morality is the fact that the very same features of an action which are the highest good for one set of people are at the very same time supreme evils for another. Strikebreakers are heroes to the bosses but villains to the workers. Stool-pigeons are praised by the witch-hunters and execrated by their political and union victims. The atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which horrified Asia was justified by the Allied powers. As Cuba has lately driven home to us, the expropriation of private property evokes contrary moral judgments from the defenders of capitalism and the proponents of socialism.

In view of such conflicting moral situations which involve the coexistence of contradictory appraisals of the same acts and actors, what solid grounds can there be for discriminating good from bad, right from wrong? Are stable moral standards at all possible?

Every school of ethics has presented its own answer to these questions. The traditional religions offer a divine justification for their mildewed moralities. The injunctions of their codes are claimed to be God’s word as revealed by Moses, Christ, Mohammed and interpreted by rabbis, priests and other authorized church officials. God’s commandments are eternal and cannot be violated with impunity because they are the passports to heaven and immortality.

Morality has gradually been liberated from such religious sanctions. With the advance of civilization, more enlightened culture and scientific knowledge philosophers have had to devise rational and secular bases for ethics. Once morality had been dislodged from anchorage in Heaven, it was necessary to find the reasons for its existence and evolution in the changing needs of human beings as these have progressed on earth. Historical materialism finally provided the most valid scientific explanation for the origins and substance of moral codes, their social functions and their limitations.

The Marxist Conception of Morality

“Men, consciously or unconsciously, derive their moral ideas in the last resort from the practical relations on which their class position is based – from the economic relations in which they carry on production and exchange,” stated Engels in his exposition of the Marxist theory of morality in Anti-Duehring. The morality of tribal life necessarily differs in its fundamental values from those of civilized societies because of the basic differences in their productive relations and forms of property. The commandment forbidding stealing or coveting a neighbor’s wife appears ridiculous to primitive people who are not bound by the customs of private ownership either in the instruments of production or the agents of reproduction.

Engels pointed out that three principal moralities are in vogue today. There is Christian-feudal morality, best exemplified by Catholicism; modern bourgeois morality; and proletarian morality. Their attitudes toward marriage and divorce can serve to illustrate the differences in these moral viewpoints. To the Catholic, marriages are “made in heaven” and should endure forever; to the ordinary bourgeois, wedlock is the result of a civil contract validated, regulated or terminated by government officials; to the socialist, it is a personal matter to be entered into or ended by the free will of the persons concerned.

These general moral outlooks represent three successive stages in the development of economic relations and express the needs and views of different class formations and social systems. They coexist and contend with one another in people’s minds and lives today.

Engels concluded that all moralities and their theoretical justifications have been products of the economic stage society reached at that particular epoch. Since civilized society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms and continues to do so, all morality has been and must necessarily be class morality. “It has either justified the domination and interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class becomes powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed.” Thus his materialist explanation for the changes and diversity in moral judgments also provides the justification for new and higher ones.

The Ethical Approach of Pragmatism

The pragmatists consider themselves specialists on matters of morality. Moral theory is, on the one hand, their substitute for conventional religion; on the other hand it provides their major means of defense and offense against a thoroughly materialist approach to social problems.

The pragmatists do not lean upon any “eternal verities” as a sanction for moral standards. They understand that these have been irretrievably battered down by the theory of evolution and the acquisitions of modern knowledge. On what grounds, then, can the practice of any virtues be recommended and justified? They are not good in and of themselves, or divinely inspired like the Ten Commandments, or enforced by taboos. According to John Dewey, the worth of any action, any course of conduct or policy is to be judged solely and simply by its real consequences. What counts is not the intentions, motives or aims of individuals but the concrete results which flow from people’s actions. Dewey conceives of morality as “overt activity having consequences instead of as mere inner personal attribute.” (The Quest for Certainty: p.6) This objective criterion separated Dewey from all the semi-religious and sentimental souls for whom moral worth depends upon “goodness of heart.”

Whatever actions tend to increase wealth and equalize its distribution, extend democracy and freedom, institute peaceful relations, open more opportunities for more people, enhance their sensitivities, add to their understanding, etc., are good. If they have the contrary consequences, they must be condemned as immoral.

Thus exploitation is wrong because it robs, divides and oppresses people – and the exploiters should be made to recognize that and either correct themselves or be corrected by the community. Force is wrong, or rather, far more often pernicious than helpful in its results. It must therefore not be resorted to – or at least employed only sparingly in case of overwhelming necessity. Class conflict is wrong – and ought to be replaced by class harmony and collaboration.

Such dicta show great good will and testify to the benevolence of the pragmatic moralist. But they do not promote a scientific understanding of the real situation which has created these social conflicts nor do they indicate a practical solution for them. It is cheap to rail against the rich and say the privileged must consider the needs of the poor and take measures to relieve them. Religion has preached such sermons – and practiced such charity – for many centuries without eradicating the conditions which generate inequality.

There is a vast difference between such abstract moralizing and a genuinely scientific investigation of morality and its development. A scientific approach to morality should be able to inform us, not only that exploitation is evil, but why the rich must act that way in the first place and thereby indicate how the evils of exploitation can be removed. This is not an individual but a collective social problem.

The highest aim of any humanist ethics is the self-realization of each individual, the development and perfecting of the human personality. Dewey correctly recognized that individual conduct is perforce subordinate to social action and that morality was indissolubly bound up with social conditions, conduct and consequences. He was willing to pose the issue and do battle with Marxism in behalf of his own viewpoint on that advanced arena.

Means and Ends in Morality

The first question he tackled was the thorny one of the relation between means and ends in morality. Many liberal moralizers believe that such a maxim is the root of all evil. It may therefore come as a shock and surprise to them that Dewey agreed with Trotsky that the end justifies the means. The ends and means are interdependent.

But neither one, said Dewey, can be justified by “alleged deliverances of conscience, or a moral sense, or some brand of eternal truths.” They can be justified, he declared, only by their actual results. “I hold that the end in the sense of consequences provides the only basis for moral ideas and action and therefore provides the only justification that can be found for means employed.” Nothing else can make means good or bad but the outcome of their use.

Trotsky had stated that the ultimate ends of socialist action are the increase of the power of man over nature and the abolition, as a consequence, of the power of man over man (social oppression). Dewey, too, regarded these as the worthiest of objectives. Trotsky further stated that all those means that contributed to the realization of these aims are morally justified. So far, there was no disagreement between the Marxist and the pragmatist.

Their positions parted when the questions of the agencies and roads through which these goals were to be achieved were brought under consideration. Trotsky asserted that the only force in modern society capable of carrying through this job was the organized working class. The only way labor can eliminate oppression and complete the conquest of nature was by developing to the very end its struggles against the capitalist beneficiaries and upholders of economic privilege.

Here Dewey took sharp issue with him. Both of these propositions were wrong, he replied. Trotsky was not warranted in entrusting the fundamental tasks of social reconstruction in our epoch to the workers. This is a matter of common concern which surpasses any special class interests. All people of good will from the topmost level of society to the lowest should be mobilized in joint effort to secure collective control over nature and our economy.

Trotsky also erred, claimed Dewey, in his exclusive reliance upon the prosecution of the class struggle as the means of arriving at the desired goals. Other ways and means than hurling capitalists and workers against one another are not only as good but will bring better results.

Thus their differences over moral theory revolved around disagreement over the agents and the means of social advancement. In essence, it was a dispute over method: both method of thought and method of conduct.

Dewey himself deliberately elevated their dispute to the level of logical method and scientific procedure. Trotsky’s method of reasoning is incorrect, Dewey said, because he deduced the means (the class struggle) from his reading (or misreading) of the course of social development. By illegitimately erecting the class struggle into the supreme and absolute law of history, Trotsky actually subordinated the ends to a particular means instead of permitting the ends to determine the means. How should Trotsky have derived the means? “By an examination of actual consequences of its use,” wrote Dewey. This is the only genuinely scientific approach which takes into account the real interdependence of the two factors.

To deduction, the extraction of particular conclusions from general rules, Dewey counterposed the procedure of induction, the arriving at generalizations on the basis of repeated or duplicated instances.

This antithesis is an unfounded one. Did Trotsky actually derive his means arbitrarily, as Dewey implied, through deductive processes alone? To be sure, Trotsky did explicitly evaluate means by reference to the laws and needs of the class struggle. These laws, however, were not freely created and imposed upon society by the Marxists. They had been drawn from a prior comprehensive study of social processes over many generations by strictly scientific methods. The laws of class struggle are first of all empirical generalizations developed from analysis of the facts presented by the history of civilization, including American history.

The Logical Status of the Class Struggle

The impressive array of factual materials regarding class conflict and its crucial role in history from which these laws are derived were observed and recorded long before Marx arrived on the scene. For instance, many ancient Greek writers and historians (Thucydides, Aristotle, Plato) noted and described them. What the historical materialists did was to give the first adequate and correct explanation of them. They explained how classes originated through the growth of the productive forces, the division of social labor, and the existence of a sizeable surplus of products and why class conflicts have revolved around the mode of appropriation of this expanding surplus of wealth.

Is this no more than an hypothesis about social development? That is what Dewey, the instrumentalist, wished to say. But the class struggle has had a different role than the dubious one liberals assign to it. It is much more than a mere possibility or a chance and episodic occurrence in civilized life. It is a necessity, a certainty. It proceeds according to a verified set of laws which formulate fundamental factors arising from the innermost constitution of class society. These apply to all types of class societies regardless of their levels of development and specific peculiarities. [1]

Once the laws governing the class struggle had been discovered, formulated and verified, they could be applied like all other scientific laws.

They enabled investigators to probe more deeply into the structure and inner movements of society, its groupings and leading personalities and thus anticipate and, under certain circumstances, direct its developments to a certain extent.

The Nature of Concepts and Laws

Instrumentalists like Dewey, however, have an iron preconception against even the most solidly based prejudgments. This aversion is a prime principle of their theory of knowledge which has a built-in contradiction. The instrumentalists rightly insist upon the universal changeability of all things. Yet for them ideas maintain a curiously static essence through thick or thin. Ideas do not lose their inherently hypothetical character and can never really change into certainties, whatever the course and results of social and scientific development.

This assumption is neither empirical nor rational. In reality, many ideas which begin as hypotheses turn into something quite different as the result of scientific inquiry and verified practice. They become tested truths, scientific laws. The theory of the existence of atoms and the inner atomic structure of matter was only a brilliant guess, an intuition, when it was first propounded in ancient Greece. Nowadays it has become a validated truth from which it is possible to derive the most explosive consequences. Yet for Dewey, like the positivist Ernst Mach, the atom was not a reality but only an “operational idea.” (See Logic, p.153 and The Quest for Certainty, pp.119 and 131.)

Dewey objected that the laws of the class struggle are not soundly based because they “prejudge the characteristic traits and the kinds of actual phenomena that the proposed plans of action are to deal with.” But they do so no more and no less than the laws of atomic activity or any other physical laws.

For pure pragmatists all conceptual generalizations remain perpetually on trial. No decisive verdict on their truth or falsity can ever be rendered by any judge, no matter how qualified, no matter how great the amount of evidence. Why? Because indeterminate elements can never be totally eliminated from reality and therefore what is provisional and inconclusive can never be excluded from scientific thought.

For them every conception has to be freshly evaluated, and every conclusion revalidated from top to bottom, in every new situation. Its thousandth repetition has no qualitatively different or more coercive character than the original occurrence. The instrumentalists talk as though it were possible, and necessary, for people to start afresh on every occasion, confronting the world around them empty-handed and empty-headed.

This is essentially a denial of the value of all acquired knowledge, all scientific method, and even of the results of induction. No one but an infant reacts to the world and tackles the problems it presents without using the accumulated resources of social development, including the growing fund of prejudgments derived from historical experience and the direct examination of reality.

These are not a mass of mere speculations; they consist by and large of authenticated information and tested generalizations. But in the eyes of the instrumentalists for whom, if they are consistent, “ideas do not disclose reality,” the content of ideas remains essentially indeterminate and forever hypothetical.

The progress of science leads to the acquisition of knowledge of the real forces which determine the production of phenomena and their subsequent formulation into laws. Dewey immensely exaggerated the aspect of indeterminateness in reality and the uncertainty of genuine knowledge. He underestimated and even excluded on principle knowing in advance and acting on ascertained truths about real situations.

“Every measure of policy is logically, and should be actually, of the nature of an experiment,” he insisted in his Logic, p.508. This sweeping assertion is neither logically correct nor factually complete.

It is a dangerous and misleading half-truth.

It depends upon the concrete circumstances of a situation and the nature of the proposal made whether or not a given policy is essentially, or only incidentally, “in the nature of an experiment.” In most cases there is, to be sure, an inescapable measure of indeterminacy which endows the reaction to it with a questionable character. But this measure of uncertainty, of contingency, is quantitatively and qualitatively variable. The value of scientific theory and the aim of rational practice is to reduce this to the minimum.

Let us take two examples from industrial practice. A lathe operator in a factory can know in advance whether a bit is too soft to cut steel of a certain hardness. He would not use a softer steel, and certainly not a wooden peg, for that purpose. In this case the end – the machining of metal to a certain shape and size – and the material reality – the hardness of the metal – reciprocally determine beforehand, both positively and negatively, the type of means for attaining the desired product.

Why cannot the same rules apply to industrial relations as to shop practice? Can’t the same worker know in advance how his employer will react when he and his associates ask for a raise in wages? The employer is a social reality of a certain type. His material interests give him a specific degree of hardness, a determined resistance to having his costs of production increased and his profits cut. In order to attain their ends, his workers need social instruments of a certain kind, strong enough to overcome that resistance. That is why they have organized unions and engage in strikes instead of relying upon individual petition.

Here we come to the nub of the problem. Every wage negotiation is not and need not be a totally fresh experiment with unknown factors, whatever may be the uncertainties in any given situation. Workers and employers have been dealing with one another for many scores of years all over the world. An experienced union leadership and an informed membership can enter collective bargaining forearmed with knowledge of the bosses’ nature gained from social science and everyday experience which helps them to handle opposition to the just demands of the workers.

If every negotiation or every act of production were to be approached in theory or in practice as wholly or largely experimental, as Dewey demands, then no particular means can be regarded beforehand as necessarily better or more suited to the requirements of the struggle than any other. This excludes reliance upon verified procedures and leaves the field wide open to any capricious innovation.

Such unrestricted and uncontrolled experimentalism is utterly alien to the actual procedures of scientists and to the normal methods of modern industry. The aim of automated factory production is to leave nothing to chance but to regulate all the factors in the process. Accidents, exceptions occur in the best regulated systems. But even these are anticipated by instruments installed in advance to detect these variations when they depart from permissible limits and then to compensate for and correct them in time. Self-regulating systems are especially imperative for such industrial complexes as atomic nuclear plants which embody the highest union of scientific theory and production.

Dewey said he wanted the most up-to-date methods of science and industry extended into everyday affairs. If this is done, then the field of operation for random experiment in the most vital areas of social life ought to be reduced and itself made subject to control. Experiment is necessary in all spheres of activity. Both science and industry take care of this need by providing special places for the conduct of experiments. In industry experimental work in pilot plants, laboratories, and in the field is carefully segregated from mass production which is carried out with already verified techniques and machinery.

In modern times there have been countless experiences, and even experiments, made by contending social forces in the domain of class relations. The positive and negative results of these various methods of action have been summarized by scientific socialism in the laws of the class struggle and codified in the programs of workers’ parties. These have great practical value as guides to progressive social forces in their further struggles.

The pragmatic viewpoint, on the other hand, is based upon the formal equality of all ideas rather than on their real material standing. Any idea is regarded as in itself just as true, useful and effective as any other. In the same way the commodity market is presumed to rest upon the formal equality of exchanges; bourgeois law, upon the formal equality of all citizens before the bar of justice; and its democracy, upon the equally decisive vote of all citizens. All these assumptions contradict the real state of affairs in capitalist society with its economic inequalities and class differentials.

One idea is not in reality as good as another. Some are truer and better than others because they do not all reflect reality equally well or widely and therefore do not have the same consequences when used to direct activity.

The Mutual Determinism of Ends and Means

For Dewey the ends and the means are interdependent. But he believed that these two terms merely condition one another; neither one can determine the other or be predetermined by sufficient material conditions. The one is as conditional and hypothetical as the other.

For example, exploitation is bad and must be eliminated. But for Dewey it may be uprooted in any number of ways: by class struggle, by class agreement or by a combination of both. None of these means are decisive for accomplishing the desired aim: the abolition of capitalist exploitation. Such is his abstract theoretical position.

This appears to be thoroughly impartial. But when it comes to practice – which, after all, is the decisive test for the pragmatist – the liberal is not so unbiased. By disposition he prefers, and in nine instances out of ten chooses, the methods of least resistance. The line of most resistance is always his last resort. This bias is not accidental. It flows from the necessity of his nature as a social being, his interests and outlook as a middle class intellectual, the ambiguity of being in the middle of opposing social camps.

Sometimes the left liberal does take the road of struggle – but only grudgingly and under the compulsion of over-riding circumstances. He feels that this method is somehow out of tune with reality and the best interests of all concerned, including his own. In reality, class struggle methods are simply inconsistent with his in-between position where he is pulled in opposite directions by the antagonisms between capital and labor, white and black.

Dewey’s second major criticism of Trotsky is that Marxists are absolutistic in appealing to fixed laws for their choice of means of social action. Trotsky, he claimed, was not being empirical or scientific but idealistic and religious-minded because he imposed his desired aims upon social development and acted as though “human ends are interwoven into the very texture and structure of existence.”

How much justification is there to this criticism? As a materialist, Trotsky never believed that human ends are interwoven into nature’s existence. He did assert, however, that class ends are objectively woven “into the very texture and structure” of social existence under certain historical circumstances.

Dewey denied this. For him society does not have so determinate a texture and structure that any general laws on the objectives of classes can be obtained from an analysis of social development and subsequently used to calculate their conduct as a basis for action.

If there are no definite laws governing the activities of classes, then there can be no necessary means, like the class struggle, to attain social objectives. If there are neither ascertainable laws nor prescribed means, then what takes their place? Tentative guesses, hopeful and wishful plans, experimental efforts. Before the act, many different kinds of means, and in principle almost any means, may achieve the ends-in-view. If you don’t know where you are going or what you are really up against, any road will presumably take you there.

On what grounds, then, should one means be selected over others? Of course Dewey acknowledges that previous knowledge and experience is to be used in the process of selection. But these are never adequate or decisive. Their worth is demonstrated only by what flows from their use.

Unfortunately, the consequences emerge only after the choice of measures is made. Why, then, can’t the choice of means be guided and determined by the lessons drawn from the accumulated consequences of the past? Although Dewey doesn’t rule these out, he does not give them decisive weight. For the pragmatist no amount of predetermination is ever definitive; determination comes only after the act and only for that particular act.

This is a preposterous viewpoint. It dismisses as negligible the fact that everything which is determined after the fact thereupon becomes transformed into something determined before the next fact. Nothing remains indefinitely in the purely provisional state that Dewey’s logic demands. When enough predeterminate material factors are piled up, the direction and outcome of developments can be foreseen.

Are Social Laws Relative or Absolute?

Compare Dewey’s out-of-this-world logic with the materialistic logic of Marxism which conforms to the real course of development and state of affairs.

Every law, including the most necessary and universal, is limited by the nature of the reality it deals with and by its own nature as a human and historically developed formulation. These give it a relative and conditional character. But that is only one aspect of its content. If the law is true, it is absolute for the processes and phenomena covered in the area of its operation.

For example, in the case under discussion, the laws of the class struggle are valid only under the conditions of class society. Before primitive society was divided into classes, these laws were not only inapplicable but unthinkable. At the other end of the historical process, as class society disappears in the socialist future, these laws will gradually lose their field of operation and wither at the roots.

Thus these laws governing social relations are both relative and absolute in their application. Their relativity is based upon the changing and contradictory course of social evolution from primitive collectivism through civilization on to socialism. Their absolutism is based upon the central role that the antagonism of class interests plays in the structure and activity of civilized society.

The Material Determinism of Class Aims

Dewey agrees that the realities of social life have to be the starting point and the foundation of any genuine morality bound up with effective social action. This means that, in a society split by antagonisms, it must be recognized that different moral demands will be invoked and different moral judgments enforced by contending classes. If this fundamental fact is waved aside, the resultant morality is bound to be fictitious or hypocritical and any behavior in accord with its prescriptions will give bad results.

Dewey understood that the individual functions in a given social-economic framework and that individual morality is bound up with public codes of conduct. For him social ends are ultimately decisive in moral matters. But what conditions actually do, and what ought to, decide what means will produce the desired ends? Dewey taught that informed or “creative intelligence” has to step in and do the job.

Without disputing this, it still does not answer the all-important question. What determines how people behave in this society and what kind of behavior is intelligent and creative? Here the real relations of classes and their roles in capitalist society are determinative.

The ends of classes, and of their members and movements, are actually determined by their material needs and interests. These arise from the parts they play in social production and their stake in specific forms of property. Thus the collective end of the capitalist class in the United States is to preserve and extend their economic system. That is their primary end. And it determines the conduct of persons belonging to that class, just as it conditions the lives of everyone in our society.

But the workers functioning in the same system have quite different ends, whether or not they are individually or fully aware of the fact.

They are impelled by the very necessities of their living and working conditions under capitalism to try and curb their exploitation. In the long run they will be obliged to abolish its source: the private ownership of the means of production and exchange. In this struggle they have the right to use whatever means of combat they can devise for such worthy purposes. These weapons range from unionism to strike action, from political organization to social revolution.

The clash of incompatible ends determines the means employed by the contending forces. Unionism begets anti-unionism; strike-making provokes strike-breaking. Faced with mass revolutionary political action with socialist objectives the capitalist rulers discard bourgeois democracy and resort to military dictatorship or fascism. The historical course of struggle leads toward the final showdown in which one of the decisive polar classes emerges victorious over the other. Marxists consciously work for the supremacy of the working people.

These class ends are definite and clear, even if they are not always grasped or stated with precision by the representatives of capital and labor who are obliged to act in accordance with them by the environing circumstances of their socio-economic situations, as these develop from one stage to the next.

The Role of Middle Class Liberalism

But what is the objective historical end of the middle classes and of such of their intellectual representatives as Dewey? In the domain of theory their function is to deny the crucial importance of the class struggle, its necessity and its fruitfulness if properly organized and directed. In practice, they usually strive to curb its development by the working class while its enemies remain unrestrained and powerful. This is a hopelessly reactionary task in social science, politics, economics – and morality.

In his choice of means and in his obscuring of ends, Dewey fulfilled a specific social function as a philosophical representative of those liberal middle class elements which aspire to be the supreme mediators and moderators of class conflict in our society. In their choice of means and ends the revolutionary Marxists for whom Trotsky spoke likewise fulfill their role as champions of the fundamental, long-range interests of the working masses. The means and ends of both, in principle and in practice, are determined by their class functions and allegiances.

Many liberal moralizers contended that, if means were justified only through their usefulness in achieving ends, the most vicious practices were licensed and the gates opened to the totalitarian abominations of Stalinism. Trotsky met this argument by answering that all means were not proper in the class struggle but only those which really lead to the liberation of mankind.

“Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilability to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle.”

The claim of the pragmatic liberals that their morality is superior to that of the Marxists in theory and practice cannot be sustained. Their ethics lacks a sound scientific basis because it systematically disregards the most fundamental factor in the shaping of social relations and the motivating of individual conduct in modern life: the division and conflict of classes. Their moral injunctions are rendered ineffectual by failure to recognize these social realities. This not only hinders them from promoting the praiseworthy ideals of equality, cooperativeness and peace they aspire to. Their blindness to the facts of life actually helps to reinforce reaction by restraining and disorienting the main counter forces against the evils of the existing system from taking the right road.

This is apparent nowadays when liberals and pacifists “impartially” condemn the terrorism of white supremacists and censure the measures of self-defense employed by Negroes against such attacks. This is part and parcel of the same moral-political position which places the aggressive violence of Washington on a par with the revolutionary actions of the Congolese, Dominican and Vietnamese peoples in their anti-imperialist struggles for freedom, unity, independence and social progress. Such false judgments come from applying abstract moral codes and categorical universals of conduct to real historical situations instead of analyzing the specific class interests and political objectives of the contending sides.

The revolutionary morality of scientific socialism is effective and progressive because it equips the laboring masses with the kind of outlook and values they need for emancipation. It generalizes and vindicates in theory their feelings that the cause they strive for is just. It explains the aims of their efforts and illuminates the kind of means required for their realization. In the simple words of the ancient moralist: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

July 26, 1965



1. This reality was recognized not long ago by certain worker-priests in France who had been sent by the Church among the workers to combat the godless materialist heresies of Marxism. “We have learned,” they wrote in a letter to Cardinal Feltir, Octobers, 1953, “that the class struggle is not a mere principle that one can accept or refuse, but that it is a brutal fact which is imposed upon the working class.” Because of their refusal to recant, they were unfrocked.


Editor’s Note

1*. George Novack was National Secretary of the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky which initiated the campaign to combat and expose the Moscow Trial frame-ups in the 1930’s and was instrumental in establishing the Dewey Commission of Inquiry. He recently edited with Isaac Deutscher a paperback anthology of Trotsky’s writings The Age of Permanent Revolution. His book on The Origins of Materialism will be published in September.


Last updated on: 12.2.2006