Leon Trotsky

The Transformation of Morals

(October 1923)

Source: The Fourth International, August 1945, Vol. 6 No. 8.
First Publisher: Inprecorr, Moscow.
Transcription/Markup: Ted Crawford & David Walters
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The article published ‘below, written in October 1923,was first printed in English in Inprecorr, Vol. 3, No. 67, Communist theory is some dozen years in advance of our everyday Russian actuality—in some spheres perhaps even a century in advance. Were this not so, the communist party would be no great revolutionary power in history. Communist theory, by means of its realism and dialectic acuteness, finds the political methods for securing the influence of the party in any given situation. But the political idea is one thing, and the popular conception of morals another. Politics change rapidly, but morals cling tenaciously to the past.

Why Bourgeois Enlightenment Failed

This explains many of the conflicts among the working class, where fresh knowledge struggles against tradition. These conflicts are the more severe in that they do not find their expression in the publicity of social life. Literature and the press do not speak of them. The new literary tendencies, anxious to keep pace with the revolution, do not concern themselves with the usages and customs based on the existing conception of morals, for they want to transform life, not to describe life! But new morals cannot be produced out of nothing, they must be arrived at with the aid of elements already existing, but capable of development. It is therefore necessary to recognize what are these elements. This applies not only to the transformation of morals, but to every form of conscious human activity. It is therefore necessary first to know what is already existing, and in what manner its change of form is proceeding, if we are to cooperate in the re-creation of morals.

We must first see what is really going on in the factory, among the workers, in the cooperative; in the club, the school, the public house, and in the street. All this we have to understand, that is, we must recognize the remnants of the past and the germs of the future. We must call upon our authors and journalists to work in this direction. They must describe life for us as it emerges from the tempest of revolution. The study of the morals of the working people must become one of the main tasks of our journalists, at least of those who have eyes and ears for such things. Our press must see to it that the history of revolutionary morals is written. And the press must also draw the attention of its contributors among the working class to these questions. The majority of our newspapers could do much more and much better in this respect.

In order to reach a higher stage of culture, the working class—and above all its vanguard—must consciously alter its morals. It must work consciously towards this goal. Before the bourgeoisie came into power, it had fulfilled this task to a wide extent through its intellectuals. When the bourgeoisie was still an oppositional class, there were poets, painters, and writers already thinking for it.

Observe Life as It Is

In France the Eighteenth Century which has been named the century of enlightenment, was precisely the period in which the bourgeois philosophers were changing the conception of social and private morals, and were endeavoring to subordinate morals to the rule of reason. They occupied themselves with political questions, with the church, with the relations between man and woman, with education, etc. There is no doubt but that the mere fact of the discussion of these problems greatly contributed to raising the mental level of culture among the bourgeoisie. But all efforts made by the 18th Century philosophers towards subordinating social and private relations to the rule of reason were wrecked on one fact—the fact that the means of production were in private hands, and that this was the basis upon which society was to be built up according to the tenets of reason. For private property signifies free play to economic forces which are by no means controlled by reason. These economic conditions determine the morals, and so long as the needs of the commodity market rule society, so long is it impossible to subordinate popular morals to reason. This explains the very slight practical results yielded by the ideas of the 18th Century philosophers, despite the ingenuity and boldness of their conclusions.

“Young Germany”

In Germany, the period of enlightenment and criticism came about the middle of the last century. “Young Germany,” under the leadership of Heine and Boerne, placed itself at the head of the movement. We here see the work of criticism accomplished by the left wing of the bourgeoisie, which declared war on the spirit of servility, on petty bourgeois anti-enlightenment education, and to the prejudices of war, and which attempted to establish the rule of reason with even greater skepticism than its French predecessor. This movement amalgamated later with the petty bourgeois revolution of 1848, which, far from transforming all human life, was not even capable of sweeping away the many little German dynasties.

In our backward Russia, the enlightenment, and the criticism of the existing state of society, did not reach any stage of importance until the second half of the 19th Century. Chernishevsky, Pissarev, and Dobrolubov, educated by the Bielinsky school, directed their criticism much more against the backwardness and reactionary Asiatic character of morals, than against the economic conditions. They opposed the new realistic human being to the traditional type of man, the new human being who is determined to live according to reason, and who becomes a personality provided with the weapon of critical thought. This movement, connected with the so-called “popular” evolutionists (Narodniki), had but slight cultural significance. For if the French thinkers of the 18th Century were only able to gain a slight influence over morals—these being ruled by the economic conditions and not by philosophy,—and if the immediate cultural influence of the German critics of society was even less, the direct influence exercised by this. Russian movement on popular morals was quite insignificant. The historical role played by these Russian thinkers, including the Narodniki, consisted in preparing for the formation of the party of the revolutionary proletariat.

Premises for the Transformation of Morals

It is only the seizure of power by the working class which creates the premises for a complete transformation of morals. Morals cannot be rationalized, that is, brought into congruity with the demands of reason, unless production is rationalized at the same time, for the roots of morals lie in production. Socialism aims at subordinating all production to human reason. But even the most advanced bourgeois thinkers have confined themselves to the ideas of rationalizing technique on the one hand (by the application of natural science, technology, chemistry, invention, machines), and politics on the other (by parliamentarism); but they have not sought to rationalize economics, which have remained the prey of blind competition. Thus the morals of bourgeois society remain dependent on a blind and non-rational element.

When the working class takes over power, it sets itself the task of subordinating the economic principles of social conditions to a control and to a conscious order. By this means, and only by this means is there a possibility of consciously transforming morals. The successes which we gain in this direction are dependent on our success in the sphere of economics. But even in our present economic situation we could introduce much more criticism, initiative, and reason, into our morals than we actually do. This is one of the tasks of our time. It is of course obvious that the complete change of morals: the emancipation of woman from household slavery, the social education of children, the emancipation of marriage from all economic compulsion, etc., will only be able to follow on a long period of development, and will come about in proportion to the extent to which the economic forces of socialism win the upper hand over the forces of capitalism. The critical transformation of morals is necessary, in order that the conservative traditional forms of life may not continue to exist in spite of the possibilities of progress which are already offered us today by our sources of economic aid, or will at least be offered tomorrow.

On the other hand, even the slightest successes in the sphere of morals, by raising the cultural level of the working man and woman, enhance our capacity for rationalizing production, and promoting socialist accumulation. This again gives us the possibility of making fresh conquests in the sphere of morals. Thus a dialectic dependence exists between the two spheres. The economic conditions are the fundamental factor of history, but we as a communist party, and as a workers’ state, can only influence economics with the aid of the working class, and to attain this we must work unceasingly to promote the technical and cultural capacity of the individual element of the working class. In the workers’ state culture works for socialism, and socialism again offers the possibility of creating a new culture for humanity, one which knows nothing of class difference.

From Gorki’s Reminiscences of Lenin

One evening Lenin was in Gorki’s company listening to a fine pianist play Beethoven in a house of a friend. After listening, with obvious enjoyment, he turned to Gorki and remarked wryly:

“I know nothing more beautiful than the Appassionata and I could listen to it every day. Invariably the thought strikes me and fills me with pride, perhaps naive, childlike: ‘What marvels people are capable of!’”

And smiling through half-shut eyes, Lenin added not at all joyously:

“But it is hard for me to listen to music frequently. It grates on my nerves. I feel the urge to utter pleasant banalities and to caress the heads of those who while living in such a filthy hell are nevertheless capable of creating such beauty. But nowadays one cannot caress anybody’s head, they’ll bite your hand off. And besides, it is necessary to keep rapping them over the head, rapping unmercifully, even though our ideal is to oppose all violence against human beings. Hum, hum—it is an infernally difficult responsibility.”

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Last updated on: 17 March 2008