Marxist Ethics – Introduction
Marxist ethics proceeds out of Marxist theology, philosophy, biology, economics, and history. Whereas Secular Humanists have a difficult time reaching a consensus regarding their ethical beliefs, Marxists do not—mainly because of their single-minded approach to all five aforementioned disciplines. This approach is rooted in dialectical materialism and the class struggle. While there is no absolute foundation for Marxist ethical ideals, most Marxists believe the dialectical view of the class struggle is foundation enough.
According to the Marxist dialectic, everything in the universe—including society—is in a state of constant change. These changes are moving society upward toward the elimination of all social and economic class distinctions. The next social advance in history will be the move from capitalism to socialism, which will inevitably result in changes in society’s moral ideals. The dialectical view of history dictates the clash of thesis and antithesis—in this historical context, the relentless clash between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Marxist-Leninists believe that the morality of these two classes is totally different, and when the proletariat finally destroys the bourgeoisie, a new morality will reign—a new morality for the new social system.
Marxists believe that “old morality”—the morality of the reigning capitalist class—exploits the working class. According to this view, old religious moral codes must be abandoned. For Karl Marx and Frederick Engels “Thou shalt not steal” establishes a society in which some have property and some do not; such an establishment is the root of the problem.
“It must be constantly borne in mind,” says Howard Selsam, “that Marx and Engels denied that moral ideals, moral considerations, are central in human life and social evolution.”1 Rather, it is biological and social evolution that determines morality. What is right or wrong is determined by what is best for this evolution. If the bourgeois class hinders either biological or social evolution, nature dictates the removal of that class.
Marxist Ethics – The Evolution of Morality
The inevitability of change is the cornerstone of Marxist ethics. Marx writes in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, “Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?”2 By Marx’s definition, our social and economic status is always changing according to the laws of the dialectic, so our ideas about morality must also be in a state of continual change.
V.I. Lenin answers the charge that the inevitability of change in both history and ethics precludes the existence of a moral code in Marxist philosophy: “Is there such a thing as communist morality? Of course there is. It is often suggested that we have no ethics of our own; very often the bourgeoisie accuse us Communists of rejecting all morality. This is a method of confusing the issue, of throwing dust in the eyes of the workers and peasants. In what sense do we reject ethics, reject morality? In the sense given to it by the bourgeoisie, who based ethics on God’s commandments. On this point we, of course, say that we do not believe in God, and that we know perfectly well that the clergy, the landowners and the bourgeoisie invoked the name of God so as to further their own interests as exploiters.”3 In Lenin’s view, Communist morality had to evolve beyond that morality of outdated Christian myth used by the exploiting class to suppress the exploited class.
When all class distinctions are erased, however, the Marxist moral view necessarily must change again because promoting class struggle will no longer be the immediate moral necessity. We say “immediate” because the dialectic is an eternal process that entails a continuing thesis/antithesis struggle. The ever-changing nature of history will dictate a new moral view for Marxists. When Marxists say there is no system of morality that fits all times, they include the future in their philosophy, realizing that history will change our perceptions of life again after our present aims are attained. Something can be morally right only in its context in history. Today the morally right action is the one necessary to attain the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie.
The new classless society will determine the new morality, just as this evolution toward a classless society is dictating today’s morality. For Marxists, morality is conduct that is in harmony with history as it flows in the direction of a classless society and beyond.
Marxist Ethics – Moral Revolution
When pursuing Marxist ethics, revolution is the most efficient means for creating a society without class distinctions. According to Marxists, revolution is unavoidable and it is the only way to overthrow the bourgeoisie and lift up the proletariat.
Communists believe their revolution is unquestionably moral. Andreyev says, “From the point of view of communist morality the struggle against everything which hinders the cause of communist construction is moral and humane and for this reason we consider the struggle against the enemies of communism to be of a moral nature.”4
This class struggle is not peaceful just as the struggle for survival in nature is not peaceful. According to Marxists, critics of the elimination of the bourgeoisie for social evolutionary reasons fail to remember the cost in death and suffering caused by biological evolution. Nature accumulates the good and disposes of the bad. The fit must survive both biologically and socially. The unfit, along with their social institutions, must perish.
Marx states, “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”5 They perceive this forcible overthrow as morally right. It is right because it destroys hindrances to a communist society. Morally speaking, Communists have an ethical duty to work toward the forcible overthrow of capitalism.
The obligation to work toward the overthrow of the bourgeoisie may very well include the duty to kill. Khrushchev explains, “Our cause is sacred. He whose hand will tremble, who will stop midway, whose knees will shake before he destroys tens and hundreds of enemies, he will lead the revolution into danger. Whoever will spare a few lives of enemies, will pay for it with hundreds and thousands of lives of the better sons of our fathers.6
Communists cannot know if their revolutionary actions are the right ones to accomplish Marxist goals. According to Lenin, they will make mistakes, but the cause is worth the risk: “Even if for every hundred correct things we committed 10,000 mistakes, our revolution would still be—and it will be in the judgment of history—great and invincible....”7
Stalin took Lenin’s philosophy to heart, stating, “To put it briefly: the dictatorship of the proletariat is the domination of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, untrammeled by the law and based on violence and enjoying the sympathy and support of the toiling and exploited masses.”8 Consistent with his rhetoric, Stalin announced on December 27, 1929, “the liquidation of the kulaks as a class.”9 British journalist D.G. Stewart-Smith estimates that international communism is responsible for 83 million deaths between 1917 and 1964. From a Marxist- Leninist perspective, if 83 million people died to abolish social classes and private property, it was worth the price—even morally just. Marxists judge the results, not the methods. Stalin, therefore, acted always within the Marxist-Leninist ethical code. He used means that he assumed would serve his ends—the destruction of the class enemy—and should those ends ever be accomplished, Marxists would have to applaud Stalin as a Marxist with the proper concept of morality. But Stalin was not alone in his morality; Lenin, too, advocated the elimination of the kulaks as a class, insisting that they were not ‘human beings”10 and that it was necessary to have recourse to “economic terror.”11
Marxist Ethics – Conclusion
Many uncertainties surround Marxist ethics. While virtually all Marxists agree on the dialectical materialist foundation for morality and the inevitability of the evolution of moral precepts, they cannot predict what the ethics of a classless society would look like. Marxists label Christian ethics “immoral” because it theoretically maintains the domination of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat; but Marxists cannot conceive of a moral scheme other than the vague idea of the “creation of a new moral man.”
An ethical ideology that includes the inevitability of change and the evolution of morals leaves Marxists free to abandon generally accepted moral standards in pursuit of a greater good—the creation of a classless communist society. This pursuit requires Marxists to dedicate themselves to the cause and to use whatever action they believe will bring about a classless society. Any course of action then, no matter how immoral it appears to a world that believes in an absolute or universal moral standard, is morally good within the Marxist-Leninist worldview.