1983. Ernest Mandel: Marx, Engels and the problem of a double morality | IIRE – International Institute fro Research and Education

Marx and Engels have often been accused of advocating double standards, and having a double morality.1 Supposedly, they opposed applying the same ethical principles that usually regulate relations between individuals to the class struggle. Hence the accusation that they and their disciples (Lenin and Trotsky, among others) put forward the principle that in the class struggle ‘the end justifies the means’. From this follows the even stronger reproach that at least the germ of Stalinist distortions is contained in the teachings of Marx and Engels themselves.2
This reproach follows from a classic conceptual confusion. In the same way that Marx does not argue that labour power should be a commodity, Marx and Engels do not say there should be a double moral standard. Marx is not making a value judgment but a historical observation. Marx and Engels show that in capitalist society, labour power has been turned into a commodity. Those who deny this observation deny reality. Similarly, Marx and Engels observe that ‘double morality’ is practised within class society in general. This is not their choice or wish. It is a sober observation of the actual state of affairs. Again, anyone who disputes this is either ignorant, blind to facts that do not suit, or a cynical hypocrite.
If we look consider the history of the last 10,000 years, we find not a single example of a class society in which this ‘double standard’ did not apply. For example, the recent declaration of the French bishops on nuclear missiles again solemnly proclaimed that non-violence is applicable only to relations between individuals, not between states. When an author like the Englishman Paul Johnson (former editor of the New Statesman) claims that the ‘degeneration of morals’ or the increase of violence in the world are due to the decline of religious principles, he forgets that in all societies in which religion, or a specific religious doctrine, were accepted as universally valid principles by 99 per cent of the population, ‘double standards’ and mass murder, among other things, were widely practised. Regarding the Christian religion, one thinks of the millions killed in religious wars, of the infamous statement by the chaplain of Simon de Beaufort’s robber knight army, marching against the Albigensians, who said of women, children and the elderly: ‘Tuez-les tous. Dieu connaîtra les siens ’(Kill them all, God will recognize His own). One thinks of the brutal wars between Buddhist and Hindu states. One thinks of the no less violent acts of the armies of Islam. The protagonists of the Old Testament, animated by the Jewish religion, were also guilty of innumerable acts of violence.3
Philosophers, moralists, sociologists and scholars of social sciences have no better a record in this regard than the representatives of institutionalized religion. In the first part of his Cyropaedia, Xenophon has the Persian kings Cyrus and Cambyses engage in the following dialogue:
In a little-known article, Kautsky convincingly outlined how the specific proletarian class morality, growing out of the proletarian class struggle, at the same time develops a set of higher moral values that are of paramount importance for moral relations among all people in the future: relations based on charity, on mutual aid and material sacrifices on a scale. Christianity or the liberal bourgeoisie have never desired or been able to apply such values on a mass scale:13
Lenin proposed practical measures to neutralize this ‘corrupting influence’: increasing workers’ and mass control over the ‘bourgeois specialists’; limiting the salaries of party members, including of the ‘specialists’ (including the members of the government, including Lenin himself!) to the salary of a skilled worker.
So we return to our starting position, but this time from a ‘higher’ theoretical-anthropological point of view. The ‘double standard’ is not an invention of the evil Marx or Lenin. It is an undeniable aspect of social reality in all societies seen so far, primarily of those torn into antagonistic classes. But the existence of a ‘double morality’ encloses an underground counter-current, a periodic attempt to at least proclaim the primacy of collective cooperation and solidarity and to try to realize this in a limited way. This counter-current is embodied by revolutionary classes and their ideological representatives, especially during high points of political-revolutionary mass struggle, whatever concrete forms it may take.17 Marxists thus recognize the historical existence of objective moral progress, of morally progressive values, independent of their immediate effect on the productive forces or of their immediate generalized application (or even, of the possibility of general application). Simultaneously, they understand the socio-material sources of such progress.
For those who believe that this would represent a ‘revisionist’ view of the Marxist conception of morality, I would like to quote as witnesses none other than Lenin, Marx and Engels themselves. Lenin writes:

freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities, and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copy-book maxims. They will become accustomed to observing them without force, without coercion.18
Marx expressed himself no differently in a letter to Sigfried Meyer dated 30 April 1867:
Why then did I not answer you? Because I was the whole time at death’s door. I thus had to make use of every moment when I was capable of work to complete my book [Das Kapital] to which I have sacrificed my health, happiness, and family. I hope this explanation suffices. I laugh at the so-called ‘practical’ men and their wisdom. If one wanted to be an ox, one could, of course, turn one’s back on the sufferings of humanity and look after one’s own hide.20
1 First published in Veelzijdig marxisme, acta van het colloqium ‘De actualiteit van Karl Marx’, organized by the Institute for Marxist Studies, 1983. Translation by Alex de Jong.
2 For a recent summary of those accusations, see the work by the French author Julien Freund, La double morale, as well as Maurice Cranston, ‘Ethique macchiavélique et politique contemporaine’, in: Comprendre (Revue de la Société européenne de la culture, 1982.
3 Of course, this does not mean that religion is responsible for all such inhuman violence. For Marxists, social relations and material conflicts of interest are ultimately responsible for this, not ideas. The ideologues who legitimize such violence can at best be accused of complicity.
4 Our countryman Simon Leys, who should know better, proclaims in a study devoted to Orwell’s 1984 (see Vrij Nederland, 21 April 21 1984), that it is high time ‘to introduce the concepts of good and evil into politics’. He forgets that throughout history, in every society, different classes have had different conceptions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. He further forgets that the existence, and even the hegemony of these notions throughout history, have never prevented (some might even claim, that they promoted) mass violence and mass murder on as large a scale as in our time.
5 See, among others, Irving Fetscher in Tom Bottomore (ed.) A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Cambridge, MA, 1983), p. 153.
6 A successful summary of the orthodox Marxist position towards morality can be found in Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours (1938). For an ‘official’ dogmatic Soviet view of that problem, see Alexandre Chichkine, Ethique: Regards sur quelques doctrines ethiques (Moscow, 1967). See also, for an academic view of the problem, Eugene Kamenka, The Ethical Foundations of Marxism, 1962 [www.marxists.org/archive/kamenka/1962/ethical-foundations/index.htm].
7 Against Kautsky’s overemphasis on the deterministic aspect of the Marxist conception of morality, there arose as a reaction, first and foremost among the so-called Austro-Marxists (Otto Bauer, Max Adler, et al.), a neo-Kantian preference for ‘absolute moral imperatives’. However, this ‘improvement’ turned out to be totally sterile. It made no contribution at all to explaining the social phenomenon of different moral behaviour patterns. In political practice, it resorted to purely pragmatic criteria in determining collective behaviour, which ran counter to the Kantian imperative (e.g. the attitude of the Austrian Social Democrats and their German supporters during the First World War).
8 Of course, what is politically expedient and what is ineffective depends on political judgement. For instance, Marxists (including the Russian Bolsheviks) have always held that individual terror is politically ineffective.
9 Lenin is by no means the inventor of the doctrine of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ wars. It is two thousand years old. See a lengthy treatment of that doctrine in: Peter Haggenmacher, Grotius et la doctrine de la guerre juste (Paris, 1981).
10 ‘Aber ein Zweck, der unheiliger Mittel bedarf, ist kein heiliger Zweck…’ [‘But the goal that requires unholy means is not a holy goal’]: Karl Marx, ‘Debatten über die Pressefreiheit’, MEW, vol. 1, p. 60.
11 Rudi Hanke in Unabhängige Kommunisten. Der Briefwechsel zwischen Heinrich Brandler und Isaac Deutscher; 1949 bis 1967 (Berlin, 1982), p. 231.
12 On the system of moral values in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and their political-social function, see a good Marxist critique in Ellen Meiksins Wood and Neal Wood, Class Ideology and Ancient Political Theory (Oxford, 1978).
13 But this tremendous moral progress made by the organized working class during the rise of the modern labour movement also involved the practice of ‘double standards’ Strikers display solidarity and a great willingness to sacrifice – but they will take care that not a penny of their money goes to scabs or capitalists. More clearly, only on the basis of a ‘double morality’ is this moral progress possible. Without effective strikes, no effective unions. Without effective unions, not collective solidarity or willingness to sacrifice, but competition among workers, i.e. of the crudest individualistic egoism. But purposeful strikes are impossible without fierce struggles against scabs, without militant pickets, without boycotts and even violence against strike breakers.
14 Kautsky, 1900, Class War and Ethics [www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1900/11/ethics.htm].
15 See among others, Miklós Haraszti, Salaire aux pièces. Ouvrier dans un pays de l’Est (Paris, 1976).
16 Lenin, 1918, The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government [www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/mar/x03.htm].
17 That form, of course, can also be a religious one, as it was for more than a thousand years in Europe (from the 3rd to the 16th century), in North Africa, in Asia Minor, in Southeast Asia and in the Islamic empire.
18 Lenin, 1917, The State and Revolution [www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev].
19 Lenin, 1920, The Tasks of the Youth Leagues [www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/oct/02.htm]. Lenin ends with the words, ‘…and become a bourgeois’. But anyone who knows the current state of affairs in Eastern Europe, in the Soviet Union and in China, knows that the last lines are indeed applicable to the prevailing mentality in those societies, even if it does not (or not yet) lead to becoming a ‘bourgeois’ but rather to a satisfied petty-bourgeois bureaucrat.
20 Marx To Sigfrid Meyer in New York, 1867 [marxists.architexturez.net/archive/marx/works/1867/letters/67_04_30.htm].
21 Engels refers here to the views on morality of the feudal (and semi-feudal) nobility, the bourgeoisie and the working class, respectively.
22 Engels, 1877, Anti-Dühring [www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch07.htm].
23 H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (London, 1962, 1973).
24 This problem is well addressed in the work of the Mexican Marxist Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, Ética (Grijalbo, 1969, Editorial Crítica, 1978). Unfortunately, in that work the objective dimension of the struggle for emancipation is hardly addressed. Sánchez Vázquez later addressed that issue in ‘Nationality and emancipation in Marx’, an article published in the Yugoslav journal Socialism in the World, no. 40, 1984.
25 Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value (Moscow, 1968), p. 119. That such abuse of science is ultimately also not in the interest of the revolutionary liberation struggle of the working class, including the building of a socialist society, the sad example of science policy in the Soviet Union under Stalin has shown all too well. One thinks of the Lysenko episode in biology. One thinks of the suppression for decades of publications and research according to the tenets of the greatest Marxist psychologist of our time, Lev Vygotsky. One thinks of the ban for a quarter century on further investigation of the category of the ‘’old Asian mode of production’, used by Marx, etc. The damage done by these practices to science and to Soviet society, to the international labour movement and to socialism, is incalculable!
26 A press that is ‘taken over and subjected to censorship by the party’ is to be found in all the so-called ‘really existing socialist states’, with the partial exceptions of Yugoslavia and Nicaragua.
27 Letter to August Bebel, 1-2 May 1891, MEW, vol. 38, p. 94 – our emphasis
28 Von Schweitzer was the leader of the so-called Lasalle wing of the German workers’ movement, which at the congress of Gotha united with the so-called Marxist wing of the movement.
29 Letter to Karl Kautsky of 23 February 1891, MEW, vol. 38, p. 41 – our emphasis.
30 Letter to Karl Kautsky of 11 February 1891, MEW vol. 38, p. 35 – our emphasis
31 Bukharin’s thesis that the definition of human action as purpose-oriented (teleological) was ‘idealist’, and supposedly in contradiction with the materialist dialectic based on the principle of causality, completely contradicts the conception of human praxis as conceived by Marx and Engels. See e.g. Das Kapital, vol. 1, chapter 1, MEW, vol. 23, p. 61 and vol. 1, chapter 5, ibid., p. 193, as well as Dialektik der Natur, introduction, MEW, vol. 20, p. 323.
32 Karl Marx, ‘A contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction’ in Early Writings (London, 1975), p. 251.
33 Marx and Engels, 1848, Communist Manifesto [www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm].
34 Marx, 1887, Capital, vol. I [www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch24.htm#S3].
35 Engels, Anti-Dühring [www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch25.htm].
36 Hence Marx’s sharp criticisms of the purely moral orientation of utopian socialism and even of the first worker communists. See for example The Holy Family in which this orientation is condemned as ineffective (‘impuissance mise en action’). But this does not at all mean that moral indignation against class exploitation and oppression disappeared from Marx’s writings. It suffices to read his pamphlet on the Paris Commune (The Civil War in France) and its powerfully dramatic ending, to see the opposite.
37 Rudolf Hilferding, Das Finanzkapital, Vorwort, p. x (Vienna, 1923); Karl Korsch, Marxismus und Philosophie (Leipzig, 1923); and ‘Zehn Thesen über Marxismus heute’ (1950) in Politische Texte (Frankfurt, 1974) pp. 385-7.
38 ‘Und Rudolph erhebt sich nicht mal auf den standpunkt der selbständigen Moral, welche wenigstens auf dem Bewusstsein der Menschenwürde beruht’ [‘And Rudolph does not even rise to the standpoint of independent morality, which is at least based on the consciousness of human dignity’]. (Die Heilige Familie, MEW, vol. 2, p. 21). The Rudolph mentioned here is the protagonist of Eugène Sue’s Mystères de Paris.
39 ‘The historic alternative, carried to the end, is as follows: either the Stalin régime is an abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society into a socialist society, or the Stalin régime is the first stage of a new exploiting society. If the second prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except openly to recognize that the socialist program based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia. It is self evident that a new “minimum” program would be required for the defence of the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society.’ Leon Trotsky, ‘The USSR in the War’, in In Defence of Marxism, (New York, 1942), p. 9.
40 Robert C. Tucker, The Marxian Revolutionary Idea (London, 1969), pp. 36-8 and elsewhere. Tucker confuses Marx’s ironic, sarcastic refutation of the assertion that capitalism would be unjust from the standpoint of bourgeois value relations (both ‘value’ in the economic sense of the word – labour quanta – and ‘moral values’) with the assertion that a worker under capitalism receives the wages to which according Marx he is entitled (p. 45). Where would that leave the Marxist theory of exploitation, the Marxist theory according to which the worker is not only right to fight for more wages and for the abolition of wage labour, but is forced to do so on pain of being degraded to a pauper? Tucker forgets what Marx explicitly foregrounds: Against bourgeois value relations, proletarian ones can and must be defended.
41 On this, one can read the chapters on machines and so-called ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ in part one of Das Kapital.
42 See for example Maximilien Rubel, Pages choisies pour une éthique socialiste (Paris, 1948), and Karl Marx: Essai de biographie intellectuelle (Paris, 1957).
43 Of course this does not mean that such inhuman practices cannot return if the crisis of capitalism is resolved in a regressive manner. Consider for example slave-labour in the concentration camps, brutal forms of colonialism, racism etc. But we refer here to working conditions as dominant, not as marginal, social institutions.
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