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January 2002 • Vol 2, No. 1 •

From the Arsenal of Marxism:

Their Morals and Ours

by Leon Trotsky

The “amoralism” of Lenin

The Russian Socialist Revolutionaries were always the most moral individuals: essentially they were composed of ethics alone. This did not prevent them, however, at the time of revolution from deceiving the Russian peasants. In the Parisian organ of Kerensky, that very ethical socialist who was the forerunner of Stalin in manufacturing spurious accusations against the Bolsheviks, another old “Socialist Revolutionary,” Zenzinov, writes:

“Lenin, as is known, taught that for the sake of gaining the desired ends communists can, and sometimes must “resort to all sorts of devices, maneuvers and subterfuge ….” (New Russia, February 17, 1938, p.3).

From this they draw the ritualistic conclusion: Stalinism is the natural offspring of Leninism.

Unfortunately, the ethical indicter is not even capable of quoting honestly. Lenin said, “It is necessary to be able … to resort to all sorts of devices, maneuvers, and illegal methods, to evasion and subterfuge, in order to penetrate into the trade unions, to remain in them, and to carry on communist work in them at all costs.” The necessity for evasion and maneuvers, according to Lenin’s explanation, is called forth by the fact that the reformist bureaucracy, betraying the workers to capital, baits revolutionists, persecutes them, and even resorts to turning the bourgeois police upon them. “Maneuvers and subterfuge” are in this case only methods of valid self-defense against the perfidious reformist bureaucracy.

The party of this very Zenzinov once carried on illegal work against Czarism, and later—against the Bolsheviks. In both cases it resorted to craftiness, evasion, false passports and other forms of “subterfuge.” All these means were considered not only ethical but also heroic because they corresponded to political aims of the petty bourgeoisie. But the situation changes at once when proletarian revolutionists are forced to resort to conspiratorial measures against the petty bourgeois democracy. The key to the morality of these gentlemen has, as we see, a class character!

The “amoralist” Lenin openly, in the press, gives advice concerning military craftiness against perfidious leaders. And the moralist Zenzinov maliciously chops both ends from the quotation in order to deceive the reader—the ethical indicter is proved as usual a petty swindler. Not for nothing was Lenin fond of repeating: It is very difficult to meet a conscientious adversary!

A worker who does not conceal the “truth” about the strikers’ plans from the capitalists is simply a betrayer deserving contempt and boycott. The soldier who discloses the “truth” to the enemy is punished as a spy. Kerensky tried to lay at the Bolsheviks’ door the accusation of having disclosed the “truth” to Ludendorff’s staff. It appears that even the “holy truth” is not an end in itself. More imperious criteria which, as analysis demonstrates, carry a class character, rule over it.

The life and death struggle is unthinkable without military craftiness, in other words, without lying and deceit. May the German proletariat then not deceive Hitler’s police? Or perhaps Soviet Bolsheviks have an “immoral” attitude when they deceive the GPU? Every pious bourgeois applauds the cleverness of police who succeed through craftiness in seizing a dangerous gangster. Is military craftiness really permissible when the question concerns the overthrow of the gangsters of imperialism?

Norman Thomas speaks about “that strange communist amorality in which nothing matters but the party and its power” (Socialist Call, March 12, 1938, p. 5). Moreover, Thomas throws into one heap the present Comintern, that is, the conspiracy of the Kremlin bureaucracy against the working class, with the Bolshevik party which represented a conspiracy of the advanced workers against the bourgeoisie. This thoroughly dishonest juxtaposition has already been sufficiently exposed above. Stalinism merely screens itself under the cult of the party; actually it destroys and tramples the party in filth. It is true, however, that to a Bolshevik the party is everything. The drawing-room socialist, Thomas, is surprised by and rejects a similar relationship between a revolutionist and revolution because he himself is only a bourgeois with a socialist “ideal.” In the eyes of Thomas and his kind the party is only a secondary instrument for electoral combinations and other similar uses, not more. His personal life, interests, ties, moral criteria exist outside the party. With hostile astonishment he looks down upon the Bolshevik to whom the party is a weapon for the revolutionary reconstruction of society, including also its morality. To a revolutionary Marxist there can be no contradiction between personal morality and the interests of the party, since the party embodies in his consciousness the very highest tasks and aims of mankind. It is naive to imagine that Thomas has a higher understanding of morality than the Marxists. He merely has a base conception of the party.

“All that arises is worthy of perishing,” says the dialectician Goethe. The destruction of the Bolshevik party—an episode in world reaction—does not, however, disparage its worldwide historic significance. In the period of its revolutionary ascendance, that is, when it actually represented the proletarian vanguard, it was the most honest party in history. Wherever it could, of course, it deceived the class enemies; on the other hand it told the toilers the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Only thanks to this did it succeed in winning their trust to a degree never before achieved by any other party in the world.

The clerks of the ruling classes call the organizers of this party “amoralists.” In the eyes of conscious workers this accusation carries a complimentary character. It signifies: Lenin refused to recognize moral norms established by slave-owners for their slaves and never observed by the slave-owners themselves; he called upon the proletariat to extend the class struggle into the moral sphere too. Whoever fawns before precepts established by the enemy will never vanquish that enemy!

The “amoralism” of Lenin, that is, his rejection of supra-class morals, did not hinder him from remaining faithful to one and the same ideal throughout his whole life; from devoting his whole being to the cause of the oppressed; from displaying the highest conscientiousness in the sphere of ideas and the highest fearlessness in the sphere of action; from maintaining an attitude untainted by the least superiority to an “ordinary” worker, to a defenseless woman, to a child. Does it not seem that “amoralism” in the given case is only a pseudonym for higher human morality?

An instructive episode

Here it is proper to relate an episode which, in spite of its modest dimensions, does not badly illustrate the difference between their morals and ours. In 1935, through a letter to my Belgian friends, I developed the conception that the attempt of a young revolutionary party to organize its own trade unions is equivalent to suicide. It is necessary to find the workers where they are. But this means paying dues in order to sustain an opportunist apparatus? “Of course,” I replied, “for the right to undermine the reformists it is necessary temporarily to pay them a contribution.” But reformists will not permit us to undermine them? “True,” I answered, “undermining demands conspiratorial measures. Reformists are the political police of the bourgeoisie within the working class. We must act without their permission, and against their interdiction.”

Through an accidental raid on comrade D.’s home in connection, if I am not mistaken, with the matter of supplying arms for the Spanish workers, the Belgian police seized my letter. Within several days it was published. The press of Vandervelde, De Man, and Spaak did not of course spare lightning against my “Machiavellianism” and “Jesuitism.” And who are these accusers? Vandervelde, president for many years of the Second International, long ago became a trusted servant of Belgian capital. De Man, who in a series of ponderous tomes ennobled socialism with idealistic morals, making overtures to religion, seized the first suitable occasion in which to betray the workers and became a common bourgeois minister. Even more lovely is Spaak’s case. A year and a half previously this gentleman belonged to the left-socialist opposition and came to me in France for advice upon the methods of struggle against Vandervelde’s bureaucracy. I set forth the same conceptions which later constituted my letter. But within a year after his visit, Spaak rejected the thorns for the roses. Betraying his comrades of the opposition, he became one of the most cynical ministers of Belgian capital.

In the trade unions and in their own party these gentlemen stifle every critical voice, systematically corrupt and bribe the most advanced workers and just as systematically expel the refractory ones. They are distinguished from the GPU only by the fact that they have not yet resorted to spilling blood—as good patriots they husband the workers’ blood for the next imperialist war. Obviously, one must be a most hellish abomination, a moral deformation, a “Kaffir,” a Bolshevik, in order to advise the revolutionary workers to observe the precepts of conspiracy in the struggle against these gentlemen!

From the point of view of the Belgian laws, my letter did not of course contain anything criminal. The duty of the “democratic” police was to return the letter to the addressee with an apology. The duty of the socialist party was to protest against the raid which had been dictated by concern over General Franco’s interests. But Messrs. Socialists were not at all shy at utilizing the indecent police service—without this they could not have enjoyed the happy occasion of once more exposing the superiority of their morals over the amoralism of the Bolsheviks.

Everything is symbolical in this episode. The Belgian social-democrats dumped the buckets of their indignation upon me exactly while their Norwegian co-thinkers held me and my wife under lock and key in order to prevent us from defending ourselves against the accusations of the GPU. The Norwegian government well knew that the Moscow accusations were spurious. The social-democratic semi-official newspaper affirmed this openly during the first days. But Moscow touched the Norwegian ship owners and fish merchants on the pocketbook—and Messrs. Social-Democrats immediately flopped down on all fours. The leader of the party, Martin Tranmael, is not only an authority in the moral sphere but openly a righteous person: he does not drink, does not smoke, does not indulge in meat and in winter bathes in an ice hole. This did not hinder him, after he had arrested us upon the order of the GPU, from especially inviting a Norwegian agent of the GPU, one Jacob Fries—a bourgeois without honor or conscience—to calumniate me. But enough.

The morals of these gentlemen consists of conventional precepts and turns of speech which are supposed to screen their interests, appetites and fears. In the majority they are ready for any baseness—rejection of convictions, perfidy, betrayal—in the name of ambition or cupidity. In the holy sphere of personal interests the end to them justifies any means. But it is precisely because of this that they require special codes of morals, durable, and at the same time elastic, like good suspenders. They detest anyone who exposes their professional secrets to the masses. In “peaceful” times their hatred is expressed in slander—in Billingsgate or “philosophical” language. In times of sharp social conflicts, as in Spain, these moralists, hand in hand with the GPU, murder revolutionists. In order to justify themselves, they repeat: “Trotskyism and Stalinism are one and the same.”

Dialectic interdependence of end and means

A means can be justified only by its end. But the end in its turn needs to be justified. From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man.

“We are to understand then that in achieving this end anything is permissible?” sarcastically demands the philistine, demonstrating that he understood nothing. That is permissible, we answer, which really leads to the liberation of mankind. Since this end can be achieved only through revolution, the liberating morality of the proletariat of necessity is endowed with a revolutionary character. It irreconcilably counteracts not only religious dogma but every kind of idealistic fetish, these philosophic gendarmes of the ruling class. It deduces a rule for conduct from the laws of the development of society, thus primarily from the class struggle, this law of all laws.

“Just the same,” the moralist continues to insist, “does it mean that in the class struggle against capitalists all means are permissible: lying, frame-up, betrayal, murder, and so on?” Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility 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. Precisely from this it flows that not all means are permissible.

When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the “leaders.” Primarily and irreconcilably, revolutionary morality rejects servility in relation to the bourgeoisie and haughtiness in relation to the toilers, that is, those characteristics in which petty bourgeois pedants and moralists are thoroughly steeped.

These criteria do not, of course, give a ready answer to the question as to what is permissible and what is not permissible in each separate case. There can be no such automatic answers. Problems of revolutionary morality are fused with the problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics. The living experience of the movement under the clarification of theory provides the correct answer to these problems.

Dialectic materialism does not know dualism between means and end. The end flows naturally from the historical movement. Organically the means are subordinated to the end. The immediate end becomes the means for a further end. In his play, Franz von Sickingen, Ferdinand Lassalle puts the following words into the mouth of one of the heroes:

..... “Show not only the goal, show also the path.
For so closely interwoven with one another are path and goal
That a change in one means a change in the other,
And a different path gives rise to a different goal.

Lassalle’s lines are not at all perfect. Still worse is the fact that in practical politics Lassalle himself diverged from the above expressed precept—it is sufficient to recall that he went as far as secret agreements with Bismarck! But the dialectical inter-dependence between means and end is expressed entirely correctly in the above-quoted sentences. Seeds of wheat must be sown in order to yield an ear of wheat.

Is individual terror, for example, permissible or impermissible from the point of view of “pure morals”? In this abstract form the question does not exist at all for us. Conservative Swiss bourgeois even now render official praise to the terrorist William Tell. Our sympathies are fully on the side of Irish, Russian, Polish or Hindu terrorists in their struggle against national and political oppression. The assassinated Kirov, a rude satrap, does not call forth any sympathy. Our relation to the assassin remains neutral only because we know not what motives guided him. If it became known that Nikolayev acted as a conscious avenger for workers’ rights trampled upon by Kirov, our sympathies would be fully on the side of the assassin.

However, not the question of subjective motives but that of objective expediency has for us the decisive significance. Are the given means really capable of leading to the goal? In relation to individual terror, both theory and experience bear witness that such is not the case. To the terrorist we say: it is impossible to replace the masses; only in the mass movement can you find expedient expression for your heroism. However, under conditions of civil war, the assassination of individual oppressors ceases to be an act of individual terror. If, we shall say, a revolutionist bombed General Franco and his staff into the air, it would hardly evoke moral indignation even from the democratic eunuchs. Under the conditions of civil war a similar act would be politically completely expedient. Thus, even in the sharpest question—murder of man by man—moral absolutes prove futile. Moral evaluations, together with those political, flow from the inner needs of struggle.

The liberation of the workers can come only through the workers themselves. There is, therefore, no greater crime than deceiving the masses, palming off defeats as victories, friends as enemies, bribing workers’ leaders, fabricating legends, staging false trials, in a word, doing what the Stalinists do. These means can serve only one end: lengthening the domination of a clique already condemned by history. But they cannot serve to liberate the masses. That is why the Fourth International wages against Stalinism a life and death struggle.

The masses, of course, are not at all impeccable. Idealization of the masses is foreign to us. We have seen them under different conditions, at different stages and in addition in the biggest political shocks. We have observed their strong and weak sides. Their strong side—resoluteness, self-sacrifice, heroism—has always found its clearest expression in times of revolutionary upsurge. During this period the Bolsheviks headed the masses. Afterward a different historical chapter loomed when the weak side of the oppressed came to the forefront—heterogeneity, insufficiency of culture, narrowness of world outlook. The masses tired of the tension, became disillusioned, lost faith in themselves—and cleared the road for the new aristocracy.

In this epoch the Bolsheviks (“Trotskyists”) found themselves isolated from the masses. Practically we went through two such big historic cycles: 1897-1905, years of flood tide; 1907-1913 years of the ebb; 1917-1923, a period of upsurge unprecedented in history; finally, a new period of reaction which has not ended even today. In these immense events the “Trotskyists” learned the rhythm of history, that is, the dialectics of the class struggle. They also learned, it seems, and to a certain degree successfully, how to subordinate their subjective plans and programs to this objective rhythm. They learned not to fall into despair over the fact that the laws of history do not depend upon their individual tastes and are not subordinated to their own moral criteria. They learned to subordinate their individual desires to the laws of history. They learned not to become frightened by the most powerful enemies if their power is in contradiction to the needs of historical development. They know how to swim against the stream in the deep conviction that the new historic flood will carry them to the other shore. Not all will reach that shore, many will drown. But to participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will—only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being! H

Coyoacan, Mexico, February 16, 1938

P.S.—I wrote these lines during those days when my son struggled unknown to me, with death. I dedicate to his memory this small work, which, I hope, would have met with his approval—Leon Sedoff was a genuine revolutionist and despised the pharisees. —L.T.

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