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Morality and Class Struggle
from the Weekly People
September 23, 1978
Letters to the People:
Morality and Class Struggle
The following letter was written by a reader in response to the editorial, "The ACLU and Economic Rights," which appeared in the August 12 issue of the Weekly People.
I read your editorial in the Sat., Aug. 12 Weekly People, "The ACLU and Economic Rights," but I wonder if you are fully aware of the implications of your statements. You state that we have a right to things because they are "objectively possible," and you state, "The point is that conceptions of 'right' do not spring from people's insight into truth or justice or their sense of fair play, but are molded by the possibilities of a given historical era."
But if one has a right to, say, food and medical care, it would follow that those possessing these items would have the obligation to provide them to others. And if the possessors refused to provide them, you no doubt mean that whatever force that is necessary must be used to acquire them.
Thus, it would seem to me that by your premise, if one had no food or medical care, it would be right and moral for him to take a gun and acquire it from those who possessed it.
And, if a poor society were unable to provide many things, but existed next to a rich society that could provide them, wouldn't the poor society have a right to forcibly acquire them from the rich society, since it would be "objectively possible" for the poor society to acquire the items, especially if the poor society was militarily stronger?
Thus, it would seem that your premise changes the whole concept of violence and theft. It would seem that whether acts of violence and theft were proper or not would depend upon whether those engaging in the acts were doing so to acquire things they had a "right" to or acquiring them for others who needed them to achieve their rights.
You might argue that it would be bad tactics to engage in violence and you wouldn't advise it at this time. But my question is: Are you not saying that, regardless of tactics, it is still moral and ethical to use whatever violence is necessary to acquire those items people have "rights" to, which would be about anything that the economy is capable of providing?
Perhaps someone could take the time to inform me if I have stated your premise correctly.
Bob Murphy Pittsburgh, Pa.
The Weekly People replies --
In opposition to the dialectical materialist conception of rights set forth in our editorial on the ACLU, Bob Murphy's comments reflect an idealist and metaphysical conception, though he never explicitly states exactly what that conception is. Apparently, it includes the belief that violence and theft are at all times immoral and that there are no circumstances under which such actions are justified.
Murphy correctly concludes from our editorial that this is not the view of Marxists and that we put the revolutionary interests of the workers above considerations of abstract moral or ethical principles, such as strictures against violence.
The Marxist Approach
The Marxist approach is not immoral, or even amoral. Rather it simply employs a different criterion by which to determine morality. It is social morality, one which recognizes moral principles and ideological conceptions as reflections of the material development of society. It recognizes change and development in moral and ideological conceptions and realizes that conceptions which at one point play a progressive role in the material development of society may at another point in history exercise a completely reactionary influence.
Such, for example is the case with the right to own the means of poduction. "Life, liberty and property" was a rallying cry of the once-revolutionary bourgeoisie, and its ideology, including the last aspect of it, was entirely progressive at the time because it served the interests of the material development of society.
Since the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century, however, capitalism has matured and decayed. The conditions have been created for a new form of social organization which would be better able to promote the material development of society. Capitalism has become a hindrance to this development. It holds back the resolution of the most pressing problems of this age-problems of hunger, war, jobs, education and numerous others, all of which could be resolved given the material possibilities of our time-and so it has become a reactionary system, rotten ripe for ovethrow. Thus, the leading principle of revolutionary morality is the necessity of getting rid of this system and replacing it with socialism, because, for Marxists, there is no moral principle which takes precedence over the collective interests of humanity.
Marxists do not agree with bourgeois liberals who insist that morality (and other forms of ideology) originate from God, "the nature of man," or any other supernatural or mystical source. We see that ideological conceptions are rooted in the social relations in which people are situated, relations which are in the first place economic. As these economic relations change^and develop, so_do the _ ideological conceptions which grow up around them.
Ideology and morality express ideas about what is "right," about what people "ought" or "ought not" to do. Under the moral code that prevails today, for example, it is considered "theft" for workers to take over capitalist property. It would be "immoral" and "unethical" of the workers to do this, because then capitalism, from which this fine principle is derived, would cease to exist.
Likewise, the slave owners of old were quite convinced that it was their "right" to own human beings and that slave-holding was "ordained by God." But today this "right" is no longer recognized, not because people today are morally superior to our ancestors, but because chattel slavery is no longer an economic necessity for society. However, society today is still organized on a capitalist basis, and like slave-society before it, this organization is dubbed with the stamp of "right" by most people simply because it appears to be the only way society can get along. We are born into a social system which we played no part in creating, and so its basic economic relations appear to most of us to be "natural." It is on this basis that ideology develops. Ideology characteristically portrays social relations as natural ones.
But social relations are not static, they are subject to change, growth and development. In periods where the economic relations of a social system are disrupted, when society can no longer get along with such relations, a corresponding disruption of ideology is bound to take place. For example, it was the struggle between feudal and bourgeois economic relations that stood behind the ideological struggle that split Christianity into the warring camps of Catholicism and Protestantism back in the sixteenth century.
In a much more limited way, the same type of ideological disruption can be sen in the ACLU, where somejieopje, in as yet a very unconscious way, are advancing the idea that the interests of the working class (jobs, education, etc.) take precedence over the interests of capitalism as a whole, which requires that employment, adequate housing and a decent education be denied to many workers in the interests of profit. This idea conflicts with bourgeois ideology because it conflicts directly with the capitalists' "right" to their property, hence with their very right to exist as a class.
Ideology and Class Struggle
These opposing ideological conceptions are as irreconcilable as the class struggle itself .^Neutrality in the ideological struggle is as impossible as neutrality in the class struggle. When one class can only advance at the expense of another, they cannot meet on the "higher ground" of noble sounding principles, .such as nonviolence, in order to~negotiafetheir differences. This is especially so in periods of social crisis. Those who seek to impose such conditions on the class struggle succeed only in making themselves irrelevant to the real battles that determine humanity's fate. They fashion for themselves an ideology which meets the requirement of being internally consistent, i.e., logical, but which fails to address the questions which are ripping society apart-or else relegates such questions to a secondary position alongside observance of the norms of taste and decorum.
As for the hypothetical situations Bob Murphy sets up, we really do not have enough information to determine whether we would side with the "poor society" or the "rich society" or whether in fact there are any class issues involved. Likewise, we could not render judgement as to whether the one man was justified in holding a gun to the other man's head without seeing this situation in its social context, i.e., without seeing how it affects the struggle of a progressive class against a reactionary one. But whatever our position would be, it would not be decided on the basis of the tactics employed by the antagonists, but on the basis of the class interests they represent.
When society moves from one level of development to another, it does not necessarily throw away all the morality and ideology of the social system which preceded it. It may not only incorporate some of these conceptions, but also deepen, broaden and add to them. As the material development of society proceeds through one social system and then another, the realm of potential human activity, the realm of freedom, is continuously broadened. New possibilities are created at each step of the way. A static ideological conception, a static conception of rights and morality, seeks to arrest this process at some point. Such a conceptionTnevitably becomes reactionary withlhe further development of society and eventually becomes a real impediment to the winning of further freedom, material and moral, through social revolution.
But what about the ideology of the working class? Will it lose its progressive character following the establishment of socialism? The answer is that it will wither away and die of its own accord.
All ideology, including working-class ideology, is illusory in that its starting point is imagined to be outside society. Just as magic~"and religion arose Eecause'man did not^ understand his natural environment, so ideology arises because man has not mastered his social organization. The attempt is made to bring society into conformity with what are presumed to be abstract principles having a validity outside society, as if the former determined the latter.
In the workers' movement fox example, it is sometimes stated "workers have a right to the full value of their labor." Such a popular conception is false consciousness from the viewpoint of dialectical materialism. It attempts to indict capitalist economic relations and justify socialist relations by portraying the latter as "natural," as the way things "rightfully" ought to be. But it nevertheless plays an objectively progressive role to the degree that it mobilizes workers in struggle against the capitalist system. Like the "right" of workers to jobs, housing and education, the "right" of workers to the full value of their product cannot be realized short of socialist revolution.
When, under socialism, humanity has at last become the master of its own social organization, when we are not regulated by economic relations but instead regulate these relations consciously ourselves, we will not feel the necessity of justifying our actions by appealing to abstract principles. The ideology of the working class will be replaced by scientific human understanding of the world around us, unhindered by ideological illusion of any sort.
Rather than appearing as holy writ decreed by some external force, morality will be seen to flow from the requirements of maintaining the social organization. The force of this morality will derive from the degree to which the social organization serves the interests of all the people.
In the struggle for such a social organization, we reject the notion that each method of struggle (peaceful agitation, violent confrontation, confiscation of bourgeois property) carries with it its own moral price tag. We evaluate all methods of struggle by evaluating their compatibility with the goal of bringing us closer to socialism? In the words of Daniel De Leon, "Goals determine methods. The goal of the social revolution being the final overthrow of Class Rule, its methods must fit the goal."
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