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January 2002 • Vol 2, No. 1 •

From the Arsenal of Marxism:

Their Morals and Ours

by Leon Trotsky

Transcribed from the magazine The New International, Vol. IV, No. 6, June 1936. The New International was the theoretical journal of the Socialist Workers Party, supporters of the International Left Opposition in the United States.

This transcription was done by David Walters in 1996 for the Trotsky Internet Archive, now a subset of the Marxist Writers’ Internet Archive. Errors are the responsibility of Socialist Viewpoint.

Moral effluvia

During an epoch of triumphant reaction, Messrs. democrats, social-democrats, anarchists, and other representatives of the “left” camp begin to exude double their usual amount of moral effluvia, similar to persons who perspire doubly in fear. Paraphrasing the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, these moralists address themselves not so much to triumphant reaction as to those revolutionists suffering under its persecution, who with their “excesses” and “amoral” principles “provoke” reaction and give it moral justification. Moreover they prescribe a simple but certain means of avoiding reaction: it is necessary only to strive and morally to regenerate oneself. Free samples of moral perfection for those desirous are furnished by all the interested editorial offices.

The class basis of this false and pompous sermon is the intellectual petty bourgeoisie. The political basis—their impotence and confusion in the face of approaching reaction. Psychological basis—their effort at overcoming the feeling of their own inferiority through masquerading in the beard of a prophet.

A moralizing philistine’s favorite method is the lumping of reaction’s conduct with that of revolution. He achieves success in this device through recourse to formal analogies. To him czarism and Bolshevism are twins. Twins are likewise discovered in fascism and communism. An inventory is compiled of the common features in Catholicism—or more specifically, Jesuitism—and Bolshevism. Hitler and Mussolini, utilizing from their side exactly the same method, disclose that liberalism, democracy, and Bolshevism represent merely different manifestations of one and the same evil. The conception that Stalinism and Trotskyism are “essentially” one and the same now enjoys the joint approval of liberals, democrats, devout Catholics, idealists, pragmatists, and anarchists. If the Stalinists are unable to adhere to this “People’s Front,” then it is only because they are accidentally occupied with the extermination of Trotskyists.

The fundamental feature of these rapprochements and similitudes lies in their completely ignoring the material foundation of the various currents, that is, their class nature and by that token their objective historical role. Instead they evaluate and classify different currents according to some external and secondary manifestation, most often according to their relation to one or another abstract principle which for the given classifier has a special professional value. Thus to the Roman pope Freemasons and Darwinists, Marxists and anarchists are twins because all of them sacrilegiously deny the Immaculate Conception. To Hitler, liberalism and Marxism are twins because they ignore “blood and honor.” To a democrat, fascism and Bolshevism are twins because they do not bow before universal suffrage. And so forth.

Undoubtedly the currents grouped above have certain common features. But the gist of the matter lies in the fact that the evolution of mankind exhausts itself neither by universal suffrage, not by “blood and honor,” nor by the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The historical process signifies primarily the class struggle; moreover, different classes in the name of different aims may in certain instances utilize similar means. Essentially it cannot be otherwise. Armies in combat are always more or less symmetrical; were there nothing in common in their methods of struggle they could not inflict blows upon each other.

If an ignorant peasant or shopkeeper, understanding neither the origin nor the sense of the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, discovers himself between the two fires, he will consider both belligerent camps with equal hatred. And who are all these democratic moralists? Ideologists of intermediary layers who have fallen, or are in fear of falling between the two fires. The chief traits of the prophets of this type are alien to great historical movements, a hardened conservative mentality, smug narrowness, and a most primitive political cowardice. More than anything moralists wish that history should leave them in peace with their petty books, little magazines, subscribers, common sense, and moral copybooks. But history does not leave them in peace. It cuffs them now from the left, now from the right. Clearly—revolution and reaction, Czarism and Bolshevism, communism and fascism, Stalinism and Trotskyism—are all twins. Whoever doubts this may feel the symmetrical skull bumps upon both the right and left sides of these very moralists.

Marxist amoralism and eternal truths

The most popular and most imposing accusation directed against Bolshevik “amoralism” bases itself on the so-called Jesuitical maxim of Bolshevism: “The end justifies the means.” From this it is not difficult to reach the further conclusion: since the Trotskyists, like all Bolsheviks (or Marxists) do not recognize the principles of morality, there is, consequently, no “principled” difference between Trotskyism and Stalinism. Q.E.D.

One completely vulgar and cynical American monthly conducted a questionnaire on the moral philosophy of Bolshevism. The questionnaire, as is customary, was to have simultaneously served the ends of ethics and advertisement. The inimitable H. G. Wells, whose high fancy is surpassed only by his Homeric self-satisfaction, was not slow in solidarizing himself with the reactionary snobs of Common Sense. Here everything fell into order. But even those participants who considered it necessary to defend Bolshevism did so, in the majority of cases, not without timid evasions (Eastman): the principles of Marxism are, of course, bad, but among the Bolsheviks there are, nevertheless, worthy people. Truly, such “friends” are more dangerous than enemies.

Should we care to take Messrs. Accusers seriously, then first of all we would ask them: what are your own moral principles? Here is a question which will scarcely receive an answer. Let us admit for the moment that neither personal nor social ends can justify the means. Then it is evidently necessary to seek criteria outside of historical society and those ends which arise in its development. But where? If not on earth, then in the heavens. In divine revelation priests long ago discovered infallible moral criteria. Petty secular priests speak about eternal moral truths without naming their original source. However, we are justified in concluding, since these truths are eternal, they should have existed not only before the appearance of half monkey/half man upon the earth but before the evolution of the solar system. Whence then did they arise? The theory of eternal morals can in nowise survive without God.

Moralists of the Anglo-Saxon type, in so far as they do not confine themselves to rationalist utilitarianism, the ethics of bourgeois bookkeeping, appear conscious or unconscious students of Viscount Shaftesbury, who at the beginning of the 18th century, deduced moral judgments from a special “moral sense” supposedly once and for all given to man. Supra-class morality inevitably leads to the acknowledgment of a special substance, of a “moral sense,” “conscience,” some kind of absolute, which is nothing more than the philosophic-cowardly pseudonym for God. Independent of “ends,” that is, of society, morality, whether we deduce it from eternal truths or from the “nature of man,” proves in the end to be a form of “natural theology.” Heaven remains the only fortified position for military operations against dialectic materialism.

At the end of the last century in Russia there arose a whole school of “Marxists” (Struve, Berdyaev, Bulgakov, and others) who wished to supplement the teachings of Marx with a self-sufficient, that is, supra-class moral principle. These people began, of course, with Kant and the categorical imperative. But how did they end? Struve is now a retired minister of the Crimean baron Wrangel, and a faithful son of the church; Bulgakov is an orthodox priest; Berdyaev expounds the Apocalypse in sundry languages. These metamorphoses which seem so unexpected at first glance are not at all explained by the “Slavic soul”—Struve has a German soul—but by the sweep of the social struggle in Russia. The fundamental trend of this metamorphosis is essentially international.

Classical philosophic idealism in so far as it aimed in its time to secularize morality, that is, to free it from religious sanction, represented a tremendous step forward (Hegel). But having torn itself from heaven, moral philosophy had to find earthly roots. To discover these roots was one of the tasks of materialism. After Shaftesbury came Darwin, after Hegel, Marx. To appeal now to eternal moral truths signifies attempting to turn the wheels backward. Philosophic idealism is only a stage: from religion to materialism, or, contrariwise, from materialism to religion.

“The end justifies the means”

The Jesuit order, organized in the first half of the 16th century for combating Protestantism, never taught, let it be said, that any means, even though it be criminal from the point of view of the Catholic morals, was permissible if only it led to the “end,” that is, to the triumph of Catholicism. Such an internally contradictory and psychologically absurd doctrine was maliciously attributed to the Jesuits by their Protestant and partly Catholic opponents who were not shy in choosing the means for achieving their own ends. Jesuit theologians who, like the theologians of other schools, were occupied with the question of personal responsibility, actually taught that the means in itself can be a matter of indifference but that the moral justification or judgment of the given means flows from the end. Thus shooting in itself is a matter of indifference; shooting a mad dog that threatens a child—a virtue; shooting with the aim of violation or murder—a crime. Outside of these commonplaces the theologians of this order made no promulgations.

In so far as their practical moral philosophy is concerned the Jesuits were not at all worse than other monks or Catholic priests. On the contrary, they were superior to them; in any case, more consistent, bolder, and perspicacious. The Jesuits represented a militant organization, strictly centralized, aggressive, and dangerous not only to enemies but also to allies. In his psychology and method of action the Jesuit of the “heroic” period distinguished himself from an average priest as the warrior of a church from its shopkeeper. We have no reason to idealize either one or the other. But it is altogether unworthy to look upon a fanatic warrior with the eyes of an obtuse and slothful shopkeeper.

If we are to remain in the field of purely formal or psychological similitudes, then it can, if you like, be said that the Bolsheviks appear in relation to the democrats and social-democrats of all hues as did the Jesuits in relation to the peaceful ecclesiastical hierarchy. Compared to revolutionary Marxists, the social-democrats and centrists appear like mental defectives, or a witch doctor beside a physician: they do not think one problem through to the end, believe in the power of conjuration and cravenly avoid every difficulty, hoping for a miracle. Opportunists are peaceful shopkeepers in socialist ideas while Bolsheviks are its inveterate warriors. From this comes the hatred and slander against Bolsheviks from those who have an abundance of their historically conditioned faults but not one of their merits.

However, the juxtaposition of Bolshevism and Jesuitism still remains completely one-sided and superficial, rather of a literary than historical kind. In accordance with the character and interests of those classes upon which they based themselves, the Jesuits represented reaction, the Protestants, progress. The limitedness of this “progress” in its turn found direct expression in the morality of the Protestants. Thus the teachings of Christ “purified” by them did not at all hinder the city bourgeois, Luther, from calling for the execution of revolting peasants as “mad dogs.” Dr. Martin evidently considered that the “end justifies the means” even before that maxim was attributed to the Jesuits. In turn the Jesuits, competing with Protestantism, adapted themselves ever more to the spirit of bourgeois society, and of the three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience, preserved only the third, and at that in an extremely attenuated form. From the point of view of the Christian ideal, the morality of the Jesuits degenerated the more they ceased to be Jesuits. The warriors of the church became its bureaucrats and, like all bureaucrats, passable swindlers.

Jesuitism and utilitarianism

This brief discussion is sufficient, perhaps, to show what ignorance and narrowness are necessary to consider seriously the contraposition of the “Jesuit” principle, “the end justifies the means,” to another seemingly higher moral, in which each “means” carries its own moral tag like merchandise with fixed prices in a department store. It is remarkable that the common sense of the Anglo-Saxon philistine has managed to wax indignant at the Jesuit principle and simultaneously to find inspiration in the utilitarian morality, so characteristic of British philosophy. Moreover, the criterion of Bentham-John Mill, “the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number,” signifies that those means are moral which lead to the common welfare as the higher end. In its general philosophical formulations Anglo-Saxon utilitarianism thus fully coincides with the “Jesuit” principle, “the end justifies the means.” Empiricism, we see, exists in the world only to free us from the necessity of making both ends meet.

Herbert Spencer, into whose empiricism Darwin inculcated the idea of “evolution,” as a special vaccine, taught that in the moral sphere evolution proceeds from “sensations” to “ideas.” Sensations conform to the criterion of immediate pleasure, while ideas permit one to be guided by the criterion of future, lasting and higher pleasure. Thus the moral criterion here, too, is “pleasure” and “happiness.” But the content of this criterion acquires breadth and depth depending upon the level of “evolution.” In this way Herbert Spencer too, through the methods of his own “evolutionary” utilitarianism, showed that the principle, “the end justifies the means,” does not embrace anything immoral.

It is naive, however, to expect from this abstract “principle” an answer to the practical question: what may we, and what may we not do? Moreover, the principle, the end justifies the means, naturally raises the question: and what justifies the end? In practical life as in the historical movement the end and the means constantly change places. A machine under construction is an “end” of production only that upon entering the factory it may become the “means.” Democracy in certain periods is the “end” of the class struggle only that later it may be transformed into its “means.” Not embracing anything immoral, the so-called “Jesuit” principle fails, however, to resolve the moral problem.

The “evolutionary” utilitarianism of Spencer likewise abandons us half-way without an answer, since, following Darwin, it tries to dissolve the concrete historical morality in the biological needs or in the “social instincts” characteristic of a gregarious animal, and this at a time when the very understanding of morality arises only in an antagonistic milieu, that is, in a society divided into classes.

Bourgeois evolutionism halts impotently at the threshold of historical society because it does not wish to acknowledge the driving force in the evolution of social forms: the class struggle. Morality is one of the ideological functions in this struggle. The ruling class forces its ends upon society and habituates it into considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral. That is the chief function of official morality. It pursues the idea of the “greatest possible happiness” not for the majority but for a small and ever diminishing minority. Such a regime could not have endured for even a week through force alone. It needs the cement of morality. The mixing of this cement constitutes the profession of the petty bourgeois theoretician and moralists. They radiate all colors of the rainbow but in the final analysis remain apostles of slavery and submission.

“Moral precepts obligatory upon all”

Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ, or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges, must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing immutable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.

But do not elementary moral precepts exist, worked out in the development of mankind as an integral element necessary for the life of every collective body? Undoubtedly such precepts exist but the extent of their action is extremely limited and unstable. Norms “obligatory upon all” become the less forceful the sharper the character assumed by the class struggle. The highest pitch of the class struggle is civil war which explodes into mid-air all moral ties between the hostile classes.

Under “normal” conditions a “normal” man observes the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill!” But if one kills under exceptional conditions for self-defense, the jury acquits that person. If he falls victim to a murderer, the court will kill the murderer. The necessity of courts, as well as that of self-defense, flows from antagonistic interests. In so far as the state is concerned, in peaceful times it limits itself to individual cases of legalized murder so that in time of war it may transform the “obligatory” commandment, “Thou shalt not kill!” into its opposite. The most “humane” governments, which in peaceful times “detest” war, proclaim during war that the highest duty of their armies is the extermination of the greatest possible number of people.

The so-called “generally recognized” moral precepts in essence preserve an algebraic, that is, an indeterminate character. They merely express the fact that people in their individual conduct are bound by certain common norms that flow from being members of society. The highest generalization of these norms is the “categorical imperative” of Kant. But in spite of the fact that it occupies a high position upon the philosophic Olympus this imperative does not embody anything categoric because it embodies nothing concrete. It is a shell without content.

This vacuity in the norms obligatory upon all arises from the fact that in all decisive questions people feel their class membership considerably more profoundly and more directly than their membership in “society.” The norms of “obligatory” morality are in reality filled with class, that is, antagonistic content. The moral norm becomes the more categoric the less it is “obligatory” upon all. The solidarity of workers, especially of strikers or barricade fighters, is incomparably more “categoric” than human solidarity in general.

The bourgeoisie, which far surpasses the proletariat in the completeness and irreconcilability of its class consciousness, is vitally interested in imposing its moral philosophy upon the exploited masses. It is exactly for this purpose that the concrete norms of the bourgeois catechism are concealed under moral abstractions patronized by religion, philosophy, or that hybrid which is called “common sense.” The appeal to abstract norms is not a disinterested philosophic mistake but a necessary element in the mechanics of class deception. The exposure of this deceit which retains the tradition of thousands of years is the first duty of a proletarian revolutionist.

The crisis in democratic morality

In order to guarantee the triumph of their interests in big questions, the ruling classes are constrained to make concessions on secondary questions, naturally only so long as these concessions are reconciled in the bookkeeping. During the epoch of capitalistic upsurge especially in the last few decades before the World War, these concessions, at least in relation to the top layers of the proletariat, were of a completely genuine nature. Industry at that time expanded almost uninterruptedly. The prosperity of the civilized nations, partially, too, that of the toiling masses, increased. Democracy appeared solid. Workers” organizations grew. At the same time reformist tendencies deepened. The relations between the classes softened, at least outwardly. Thus certain elementary moral precepts in social relations were established along with the norms of democracy and the habits of class collaboration. The impression was created of an ever more free, more just, and more humane society. The rising line of progress seemed infinite to “common sense.”

Instead, however, war broke out with a train of convulsions, crises, catastrophes, epidemics, and bestiality. The economic life of mankind landed in an impasse. The class antagonisms became sharp and naked. The safety valves of democracy began to explode one after the other. The elementary moral precepts seemed even more fragile than the democratic institutions and reformist illusions. Lying, slander, bribery, venality, coercion, murder grew to unprecedented dimensions. To a stunned simpleton all these vexations seem a temporary result of war. Actually they are manifestations of imperialist decline. The decay of capitalism denotes the decay of contemporary society with its laws and its morals.

The “synthesis” of imperialist turpitude is fascism directly begotten of the bankruptcy of bourgeois democracy before the problems of the imperialist epoch. Remnants of democracy continue still to exist only in the rich capitalist aristocracies: for each “democrat” in England, France, Holland, Belgium there is a certain number of colonial slaves; “60 Families” dominate the democracy of the United States, and so forth. Moreover, shoots of fascism grow rapidly in all democracies. Stalinism in its turn is the product of imperialist pressure upon a backward and isolated workers’ state, a symmetrical complement in its own genre to fascism.

While idealistic philistines among whom anarchists, of course, occupy first place—tirelessly unmask Marxist “amoralism” in their press. The American trusts, according to John L. Lewis, (C.I.O.) are spending not less than $80,000,000 a year on the practical struggle against revolutionary “demoralization,” that is, espionage, bribery of workers, frame-ups, and dark-alley murders. The categorical imperative sometimes chooses circuitous ways for its triumph!

Let us note in justice that the most sincere and at the same time the most limited petty bourgeois moralists still live even today in the idealized memories of yesterday and hope for its return. They do not understand that morality is a function of the class struggle; that democratic morality corresponds to the epoch of liberal and progressive capitalism; that the sharpening of the class struggle in passing through its latest phase definitively and irrevocably destroyed this morality; that in its place came the morality of fascism on one side, on the other the morality of proletarian revolution.

“Common sense”

Democracy and “generally recognized” morality are not the only victims of imperialism. The third suffering martyr is “universal” common sense. This lowest form of the intellect is not only necessary under all conditions but under certain conditions is also adequate. Common sense’s basic capital consists of the elementary conclusions of universal experience: not to put one’s fingers in fire, whenever possible to proceed along a straight line, not to tease vicious dogs—and so forth and so on. Under a stable social milieu common sense is adequate for bargaining, healing, writing articles, leading trade unions, voting in parliament, marrying and reproducing the race. But when that same common sense attempts to go beyond its valid limits into the arena of more complex generalizations, it is exposed as just a clot of prejudices of a definite class and a definite epoch. A simple capitalist crisis is enough to bring common sense to an impasse; and before such catastrophes as revolution, counter-revolution and war, common sense proves a perfect fool. In order to understand the violations against the “normal” course of events higher qualities of intellect are necessary, and these are philosophically expressed as yet only by dialectic materialism.

Max Eastman, who successfully attempts to endow “common sense” with a most attractive literary style, has fashioned out of the struggle against dialectics nothing less than a profession for himself. Eastman seriously takes the conservative banalities of common sense wedded to good style as “the science of revolution.” Supporting the reactionary snobs of Common Sense, he expounds to mankind with inimitable assurance that if Trotsky had been guided not by Marxist doctrine but by common sense then he would not have lost power. That inner dialectic which until now has appeared in the inevitable succession of determined stages in all revolutions does not exist for Eastman. Reaction displacing revolution, to him, is determined through insufficient respect for common sense. Eastman does not understand that it is Stalin who in a historical sense fell victim to common sense, that is, its inadequacy, since that power which he possesses serves ends hostile to Bolshevism. Marxist doctrine, on the other hand, permitted us to tear away in time from the Thermidorian bureaucracy and to continue to serve the ends of international socialism.

Every science, and in that sense also the “science of revolution” is verified by experience. Since Eastman well knows how to maintain revolutionary power under the condition of world counter-revolution, then he also knows, we may hope, how to conquer power. It would be very desirable that he finally disclose his secrets. Best of all that it be done in the form of a draft program for a revolutionary party under the title: How to Conquer and Hold Power. We fear, however, that it is precisely common sense which will urge Eastman to refrain from such a risky undertaking. And this time common sense will be right.

Marxist doctrine, which Eastman, alas, never understood, permitted us to foresee the inevitability under certain historic conditions of the Soviet Thermidor with all its coils of crimes. That same doctrine long ago predicted the inevitability of the downfall of bourgeois democracy and its morality. Meanwhile, the doctrinaires of “common sense” were caught unaware by fascism and Stalinism. Common sense operates with invariable magnitudes in a world where only change is invariable. Dialectics, on the contrary, takes all phenomena, institutions, and norms in their rise, development and decay. The dialectical consideration of morals as a subservient and transient product of the class struggle seems to common sense an “amoralism.” But there is nothing more flat, stale, self-satisfied and cynical than the moral rules of common sense!

Moralists and the GPU

The Moscow trials provided the occasion for a crusade against Bolshevik “amoralism.” However, the crusade was not opened at once. The truth is that in their majority the moralists, directly or indirectly, were friends of the Kremlin. As such they long attempted to hide their amazement and even feigned that nothing unusual had occurred.

But the Moscow trials were not at all an accident. Servile obedience, hypocrisy, the official cult of mendacity, bribery, and other forms of corruption had already begun to blossom ostentatiously in Moscow by 1924-1925. The future judicial frame-ups were being prepared openly before the eyes of the whole world. There was no lack of warning. The “friends,” however, did not wish to notice anything. No wonder: the majority of these gentlemen, in their time irreconcilably hostile to the October Revolution, became friends of the Soviet Union merely according to the degree of its Thermidorian degeneration—the petty bourgeois democrats of the West recognized in the petty bourgeois bureaucracy of the East a kindred soul.

Did these people really believe the Moscow accusations? Only the most obtuse. The others did not wish to alarm themselves by verification. Is it reasonable to infringe upon the flattering, comfortable, and often well-paying friendship with the Soviet embassies? Moreover—oh, they did not forget this!—indiscreet truth can injure the prestige of the U.S.S.R. These people screened the crimes by utilitarian considerations, that is, openly applied the principle, “the end justifies the means.”

The King’s counselor, Pritt, who succeeded with timeliness in peering under the chiton of the Stalinist Themis and there discovered everything in order, took upon himself the shameless initiative. Romain Rolland, whose moral authority is highly evaluated by the Soviet publishing house bookkeepers, hastened to issue one of his manifestos where melancholy lyricism unites with senile cynicism. The French League for the Rights of Man, which thundered about the “amoralism of Lenin and Trotsky” in 1917 when they broke the military alliance with France, hastened to screen Stalin’s crimes in 1936 in the interests of the Franco-Soviet pact. A patriotic end justifies, as is known, any means. The Nation and The New Republic closed their eyes to Yagoda’s exploits since their “friendship” with the USSR guaranteed their own authority. Yet only a year ago these gentlemen did not at all declare Stalinism and Trotskyism to be one and the same. They openly stood for Stalin, for his realism, for his justice and for his Yagoda. They clung to this position as long as they could.

Until the moment of the execution of Tukhachevsky, Yakir, and the others, the big bourgeoisie of the democratic countries, not without pleasure, though blanketed with fastidiousness, watched the execution of the revolutionists in the USSR. In this sense The Nation and The New Republic, not to speak of Duranty, Louis Fischer, and their kindred prostitutes of the pen, fully responded to the interests of “democratic” imperialism. The execution of the generals alarmed the bourgeoisie, compelling them to understand that the advanced disintegration of the Stalinist apparatus lightened the tasks of Hitler, Mussolini and the Mikado. The New York Times cautiously but insistently began to correct its own Duranty. The Paris Le Temps opened its columns slightly to shedding light upon the actual situation in the U.S.S.R. As for the petty bourgeois moralists and sycophants, they were never anything but servile echoes of the capitalist class. Moreover, after the International Commission of Inquiry, headed by John Dewey, brought out its verdict it became clear to every person who thought even a trifle that further open defense of the GPU signified peril of political and moral death. Only at this moment did the “friends” decide to bring the eternal moral truths into God’s world, that is, to fall back to the second line trench.

Part 2





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