Socialist morality, a contradiction in terms?


The strangest election statement I have ever read was written in the midst of my party’s recent difficulties. “Elect me to special conference”, this personal manifesto read, “and I will vote against all politics of pre-figurativism”.

The thinking is more coherent, although not more benign, than it sounds. It goes something like the following: where Marxists have historically distinguished ourselves from reformist socialists to our right and anarchists to our left is by our belief in the necessity for breaking the state through revolution. Several varieties of anarchism, in particular, maintain that it is possible to “pre-figure” a future, free society by voluntarily adopting free human relationships now. So, to demonstrate the possibility of liberty, we should occupy disused banks etc, running them in a sustainable and co-operative manner. “Marxists”, whoever they or we may be, apparently distinguish ourselves from such anarchists, sadly recognising that a line of tents cannot guard our future. Without a prior social revolution, the tents will be inhabited by people copying the many oppressive practices of ages.

The accusation which my fellow comrade was impliedly making against me, and against my fellow candidates from the party’s then opposition, was that in seeking to insist on any kind of sexual morality, we were trying to impose on people the sorts of value judgments which could be possible only under socialism.

I will acknowledge a germ of truth to this position. The mere experience of life teaches that the people who begin by occupying banks end up having to impose a coherent opinion on an unwilling minority, whether they are fellow demonstrators, or thieves seeking to make off with the lead from the banks’ rooves. If the co-operative is a business it has to compete; even if it is not, its occupants must first of all be fed, clothed, etc, and this all takes money. Somehow capitalist relations sneak back in.

We cannot create all of socialism while ignoring the state. But a one-sided refusal to be ethical cannot “solve” the problems of real life. It is equally true that any socialist project based on violence, sustained deceit, or relationships of crude domination would quickly make itself unpalatable to the very people who were supposed to carry it out. The positive insight “real liberation requires a prior transformation in all our economic, social and political lives” leaves the remaining double negative: but an organisation whose members cannot behave will not produce anything which lasts.

During the winters of the Russian Revolution, socialists protested (I am told) naked, against shame. I only hope that they had fires, furs, and vodka to warm themselves afterwards. This is the sort of moral utopianism we need. The committed rejection of pre-figurativism reflects counter-revolutionary, not revolutionary politics.

For so very many years, my comrades have solved our moral difficulties by a kind of strange, practical thinking, in which moral judgments are made, but never acknowledged. This formal rejection of morality as “bourgeois” co-habits with a quite different, applied ethics, which pulls in a radically different direction.

Not everyone agrees with me. Here for example is one moral authority: “Had Lenin sought to offer a sustained ethical defense of the October revolution he would almost certainly have relied on the arguments of the kind used by Trotsky in Their Morals and Ours (1938). Here Trotsky defends a kind of consequentialism, arguing that, ‘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 humanity over nature and to the abolition of one the power of one person over another.’”

This is in fact a wretched description of the moral universe in which most socialist operate. We instead have a partly code-based morality; in which acts may be wrong, irrespective of their outcomes. Thus:
• Any socialist leadership worthy of the name would not set out to lie to their members about the size of their party;
• A socialist party would not accept a cheque from an individual who is a prominent and unapologetic racist; and
• An individual socialist would not threaten or beat another socialist, not even if provoked.

The reason these acts are wrong – any socialist will recognise – is that they are the sorts of acts, whether of greater or lesser pettiness or malice, that degrade the people who do them. Cultures of deceit or internal violence, once practised, are not easily disdained. The method might bring some temporary gains; lasting results will not come from them. Or if they did, they would subtly alter the project itself, in the spirit of that Lukacs quote I have used elsewhere recently: ““Marxists know that dirty little tricks can be performed with impunity when great deeds are being achieved; the error of some comrades is to suppose that one can produce great results simply through the performance of dirty little tricks …”

Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours is not simply consequentialist. Along with the passages just cited there are also passages which indicate his superior moral understanding that the method of an act and its outcome are interconnected. The very quote from it, which I have just cited, comes within a section headed, “Dialectic Interdependence of End and Means”, and alongside passages such as this:

“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.” (

A Lenin who had not grasped this – in his day-to-day relationships with his fellow socialists, during and beyond exile – would not have written re-read Hegel, could not have written State and Revolution, would not have begun his last, failed battle with Stalin (

A final point: I will be accused, I do not doubt, of portraying morality as a series of timeless concepts, un-rooted in real struggle. Actually, the notion of socialist morality that I am stating here is one which goes back deep in the International Socialist tradition, as far ago as the days when Cliff and his co-thinkers where mapping a notion of socialist practice at odds with the practices of their larger rivals on the socialist left, in particular the SLL and the New Left.

When “IS” was just getting going, the key reading was Notes from the Moral Wilderness, an essay previously published by a recent recruit, Alasdair MacIntyre. This is how he set out the moral project of socialism:

“As against the Stalinist it is an assertion of moral absolutes; as against the liberal critic of Stalinism it is an assertion of desire and of history” …

“The liberal sees himself as choosing his values. The Marxist sees himself as discovering them. He discovers them as he rediscovers fundamental human desire; this is a discovery he can only make in company with others. The ideal of human solidarity, expressed in the working-class movement, only has point because of the fact of human solidarity which comes to light in the discovery of what we want. So the Marxist never speaks morally just for himself. He speaks in the name of whole historical development, in the name of a human nature which is violated by exploitation and its accompanying evils” …

“To speak for human possibility as it emerges, to speak for our shared desires, this is to speak for an absolute. There are things you can do which deny your common humanity with others as effectively as if you were a liberal. It is for this reason that the Marxist condemn the H-Bomb. Anyone who would use this has contracted out of common humanity. So with the denial of racial equality, so with the rigged trial…”

MacIntyre’s essay is now online. I would encourage everyone who can to read it: and

It is part of our shared inheritance; we would all be fools to forget it.

(Originally published here:



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