In their ideological battle against the revolutionary working class, the bourgeoisie has advanced a great many myths and purposefully false perceptions and accusations of revolutionary activists. It was a common line in Cold War propaganda that communists are “amoral.” The idea advanced here is that because communists didn’t fit with the notions of morality advanced by the capitalist countries, that they challenged the “sacred” constructs of nationalism, religious hegemony, racial apartheid, bourgeois class domination and bourgeois private property. All of this signified that they were entirely without moral compass in their actions.
To those informed only by the West’s propaganda about what it meant to be communist, a communist revolutionary is guided solely by a naked pursuit of the property of others by theft and of the degradation of the pure and earnest morality represented by the culture of the United States. The notion that a communist might have a moral compass, a consciousness of “right and wrong,” would be baffling to such a person.
The communist, however, is not amoral. To the revolutionary activist, there is a “right and wrong,” a moral evaluation that can be made of their actions which determines the correct and incorrect course of action in the wake of a moral dilemma. While the communist rejects the morality of the bourgeoisie, which is based in abstract and metaphysical understandings that, ultimately, serve those in power under capitalism, the communist is a moral actor.
To understand how this is so and how this moral system works, we must understand that moral questions do not exist in the abstract, and that the proper answer to these questions is based both on the material situation at hand and the class interest represented by the moral actor.
Moral Questions are Grounded in Material Conditions and Interests
Under capitalism, we are taught from a young age that right and wrong are monolithic concepts that are set in stone for all times. They exist above our world and govern it. For instance, we are taught at a young age that it is always wrong to steal, to lie, etc., because these are the practice of the “bad guy” or “bad people.” In the realm of the Christian religion (among others) we are told that an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God gave us our moral guidelines on stone tablets, giving us an answer to all questions of right and wrong defined by a list of commandments that must not be violated. Both this theory of a “divine command” morality and the moral instructions that children are given from a young age present an ethical understanding that is grounded in the metaphysical.
Metaphysical thought attempts to define and rationalize our world using things that, supposedly, exist outside of the material. Just as God is supposed to be a being that cannot be fathomed by the simple creatures he’s created, having power,wisdom, authority and perception that are beyond matter, concepts like “Truth,” “Justice,” “Right” and “Wrong” also exist outside of us, outside of our world and what happens within it. They are above and beyond the material, yet they also are the standard wherein we must define and shape the material. It is something that must not be questioned or analyzed, and ultimately we must yield to the authority of these things if we are to exercise correct and moral action.
Metaphysical moralists attempt to explain their ethical systems as being straightforward and simple, allowing us to simply “follow these rules and guidelines” and everything will be fine. However, as we attempt to make the “right” decision within the material world, we encounter difficulty. Let’s take the examples of lying and stealing. One would generally consider lying to be immoral, and telling the truth to be the right thing to do. However, let’s pretend that the year is 1942, you’ve got half a dozen Roma and Jews hiding in your attic, and a German official comes to your door and asks if anybody else is home. Is the right thing to do to respond “Yes, there are Jews and Roma in my attic, if you would be so kind as to ignore that fact and not exterminate them?” or would the right thing to do be to lie in hopes of protecting them? In the case of theft, let’s pretend that there is a situation wherein one has the choice of stealing food or water (wherein it is plentiful and won’t deprive anyone else of hydration or nutrition) to save the life of someone who is somehow barred from these essential things. Is it right to steal in that case?
Most people, given examples like these, would concur that, yes, it would indeed be right and/or justifiable to deviate from the prohibitions against certain actions given circumstances like these. However, if your morality is supposedly defined by these concepts, in that it cannot exist without them, how can any action be moral that defies these sacred rules? The answer is that it cannot. In order to take moral action that deviates from metaphysical constructions, that makes exceptions to supposedly monolithic rules, moral action must be grounded in something other than these rules. Otherwise, morality itself is rendered arbitrary and nonexistent.
It proceeds from this analysis that if moral action is possible, that if there is a “right” and “wrong” way to proceed in a situation, and that if metaphysical constructs alone cannot be trusted to govern such decisions, some of what makes up “right” and “wrong” are defined by our situation as it exists within the realm of material reality. That is, the way that we are given our moral understandings, and the circumstances wherein we must practice moral action, originate in the real world, not outside of it. What this means is that all morality is subject to an existing social context, and in a world defined by class interests and antagonisms, morality and moral perceptions are influenced by these interests and antagonisms.
Bourgeois and Proletarian Morality
Morality in capitalism is defined by capitalism’s ruling class. The metaphysical concepts used to preach moral action throughout the ages, under different economic systems and under different modes of production, are routinely co-opted in the service of the bourgeoisie, just as they had been co-opted by the ruling classes of other eras. Just as the agents of the enforcement of correct and incorrect action serve the bourgeoisie (AKA, the police, military, etc.) so too do the ideologically informed concepts of what actions are right and wrong.
Let’s consider the implications of this for a moral analysis of a well-known story. The story of Robin Hood is the story of a noble thief who makes a career of defying police authorities by stealing from the wealthy landowners. Robin Hood is considered to be a hero, doing the “right thing” within his context and is celebrated by having his story told over and over in varying media. As such, Robin Hood is seen as a moral actor, even under the regime of capitalism. However, for the sake of argument, let us propose a re-telling of this story. For this version, Robin Hood is a modern-day revolutionary, battling riot police and waging class war against the few who own and control the means of production, appropriating those means for the benefit and advancement of the exploited and oppressed working class. Is Robin the “good guy” now?
The answer depends on who you ask. If you ask a member of the bourgeoisie, or one who adheres to their ideological perspective, Robin Hood is not doing the right thing. In fact, he’s advancing evil by challenging the sacred edict of private property, or perhaps he’s simply going about things in a manner that is evil, despite having a noble goal, because he’s subverting “democracy” by advocating revolution rather than reform. Maybe his problem is that he is embodying the deadly sin of “envy,” and is thus acting as a pawn of some diabolical force outside of his immediate consciousness. Whatever metaphysics are employed by the bourgeoisie in their analysis, they will ultimately come to the same conclusion: Robin Hood was wrong.
Ignoring the maelstrom of metaphysical excuses as to why Robin Hood is an immoral actor, what is the basis for his moral trespass? What exactly is it that he’s done wrong? Is it simply “stealing?” The answer to that is no.
Stealing isn’t inherently wrong to capitalism — the theft of resources such as land and mineral wealth is a favorite past-time of imperialist powers, and the development of capitalism itself necessitated the theft of land, whether it was from indigenous Native peoples or from a peasantry. What our modern-day Robin Hood did wrong was to challenge the hegemony, the power of the bourgeoisie in all things and the property that is the basis of that power.
Bourgeois Morality’s Moral Imperative
It is this defense of the position and power of the bourgeoisie that stands as the central axiom of bourgeois morality. It is the definitive moral imperative of the bourgeoisie to preserve the property relations that define capitalism and their elevated position within it. Their morality stands as a justification for their existence and as a means of expressing their “legitimacy.”
The bourgeoisie exists as a parasitic class who exploit the labor of workers who are forced to work the means of production that the bourgeoisie owns for fear of destitution and starvation. The bourgeoisie accrue wealth and power from this relationship in the form of the surplus value generated by the workers and their monopoly over the productive property that is required to sustain life. As such, in order to justify and defend their existence, they rabidly defend the private ownership of the means of production as being a sacred right. In order to do this effectively, they must do two things: to obscure what it is precisely they are defending and to make the defense of this something that is defined by a power that is absolute.
We see the first in the characterization of the challenge on private property waged by those who would challenge this. The anti-communist interprets the attack on the private property of the bourgeoisie as an attack on all property, whether it be a factory or coal mine, or on an individual home, a television, a car or the shirt off of someone’s back.
There is no distinction made in the anti-communist’s straw man characterization of communism between personal property and industry, the means of production or the means of personal subsistence. To acknowledge such a distinction would be counter-productive. Rather, all property must be equally under attack, and this attack must be condemned no matter who it attacks and for what reason.
The second means of defense exist to obscure the class origin of the defense of private property. Rather than an individual member of the bourgeoisie arguing why he thinks that his private property, and his alone, must be defended, instead we have a sacred “right” applied to all such property, even if it is chiefly enforced to protect a certain kind of property. When it comes to the bourgeoisie, they are are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” They may argue that the worker is, as well, so endowed with these rights, yet at the end of the day the worker can barely defend the existence of food on his plate, let alone some “right” he has no power to defend within the confines of the capitalist system.
This is the material basis of bourgeois morality. Bourgeois moral statements may vary, may contradict, may exaggerate philosophical differences between groups and may make proclamations of moral right and wrong that are seemingly class-neutral. However, when it comes to the role power plays in deciding what is considered moral and how it is enforced, we see bourgeois morality for what it is: an ideological framework wherein the bourgeoisie may advance perceptions of morality which specifically defend their class position and power. Trimmed of its superfluous moral proclamations, bourgeois morality reveals itself as a convoluted way of saying “might makes right,” at least when it is their might that is the force for power in society. After all, in capitalism, the bourgeoisie have the power and therefor have the means and the ability to decide what counts as right and wrong.
Proletarian Morality’s Moral Imperative
Proletarian morality is directly opposed to this ideological expression of bourgeois domination. It sees bourgeois morality for what it is: another set of chains fixed to the necks of the working class to compel them to continue working without resistance to power and property. Whereas bourgeois morality exists to advance bourgeois hegemony, proletarian morality exists to resist and counter this hegemony. As such, both the classical and modern-day Robin Hood characters can be seen as moral actors for their resistance to exploitation.
The proletariat is the laboring class who have only their labor to sell, and hence find themselves trapped in capitalism’s production scheme, forced to work long hours only to be compensated for a miniscule fraction of the wealth they create for the bourgeoisie. They are alienated not only from what they produce, but from how they go about producing it. They are also alienated from one another, forced to see other workers as competition and otherwise being separated from others by the machinations of the capitalist system. For the class-conscious worker, who understands what is happening and what the cause of it is, the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system are presented as their enemy. They are what cause the daily injustice and pain felt by all workers, and therefore are abhorrent, immoral and need to be challenged and defeated if workers are to escape the prison in which they find themselves.
The resulting moral outlook from this perspective is one that emphasizes collective liberation of the working class from this system. It is a moral perspective that condemns the exploitation and alienation carried out in capitalism as a moral evil, and as a result sees a social situation wherein workers are in control when they produce, of what and how they produce, for what need and to what end, are not exploited and not alienated from one another, as desirable, good, right and just.
As well, the means of effecting such a transition are as well moral, insofar as they do not have the consequence of advancing the alienation and exploitation of the working class. Therefor, just as bourgeois morality advances counter-revolution, proletarian morality advances the cause of revolution, to put it simply.
Origins of Communist Morality: Utilitarian and Deontological
When it comes to the topic of communist morality, it is important to understand the roots of some of the ideas which are championed by the revolutionary working class when it comes to ethics. Two different ethical systems can be seen as informing the moral perspective of the communist.
One ethical system that can be seen as contributing on some level to communist morality is utilitarian ethics. Now, rather than getting into a long-winded discussion of rule versus act utilitarianism, Bentham’s utilitarianism and Mill’s utilitarianism, let us instead define simply what we mean by “utilitarianism,” and then define what a proletarian utilitarianism might look like. Utilitarianism, defined simply, means that what is good is defined by “what advances the greatest happiness,” or the greatest well-being. This definition was later modified by having this standard being applied to the “greatest number of people.” Now, if we were to examine this in terms of a proletarian morality, a proletarian utilitarianism would be defined as “that which advances the cause of the proletariat is good, and that which retards the advance of the proletariat is evil.”
The second ethical system that can be seen as informing communist moral perspective is a Deontological one. Deontological ethics refers to a number of ethical systems which define themselves based on rules or norms, rather than outcomes alone, to understand what actions can be considered moral. Proletarian morality, as it moves to resist the alienation and exploitation of workers, must define both of these as abhorrent and counter to their moral expression. This is not done in the same deceptive manner that the bourgeoisie defines the protection of their private property. Rather, it is an earnest expression of the desire to render both exploitation and alienation obsolete, to destroy them as they pertain to the human experience. Hence, proletarian morality must contain a mechanism which protects workers and revolutionaries from these forces, from being subjected to them and from subjecting other workers to them.
Do the Ends Always Justify the Means?
It is important to understand the two origins of communist morality, because both of these are essential to moral action. It is a common accusation of communists that communism is defined by an “ends justify the means” mentality, that communists are entirely consequentialist and therefore must inevitably perpetrate great evil in the pursuit of their revolutionary ambitions.
This is not the case at all. The ends do not always justify the means for the reason that the proposed means to an end may be counter to that end in the long run.
It must be understood on general principle that advancing alienation for workers does not serve the interests of revolution. As a rule, it does not, and therefore the actions of a revolutionary must endeavor to strike a balance between the end of an action as it regards to the advancement of the proletariat as a whole and the potential for alienation and exploitation of workers to arise as a result of that action.
Let us deconstruct a straw man argument one might make against communism and in the favor of their deceptive definition of private property. Let’s say a bunch of workers are cleaning public toilets and find themselves short one brush to do the work. Since a nearby resident doesn’t have the sacred right to private property, one of these workers would be free to trespass into their home, freely expropriate that person’s toothbrush, and proceed to use it to clean toilets. The straw man communist argument is that, since communists are supposedly entirely consequentialist, and that the clean toilet may serve many people, whereas the toothbrush was just serving one person, that this is justified, and the resident with the now soiled toothbrush had better “suck it up” because its for the greater good. However, no communist in his right mind would actually make this argument, let alone such a decision. The reason is that the social costs of alienation created by such an incident far outweigh the benefit of a cleaned toilet.
The reason is that, while the individual worker’s needs must be subdued to the needs of the majority out of necessity, it must be understood that the individual matters as a part of the collective, is not always “fair game” for arbitrary action because they are only one person; otherwise the majority is alienated for fear of becoming the minority, for being in the position of that one person.
This is the decisive dynamic that must be analyzed when a communist considers whether an action can be considered moral or not. It is not something that exists outside of our experience, that is justified by higher, metaphysical powers that be. Rather, it is a practical means of assessing the compatibility of one’s actions for the ends they are pursuing. If they are to follow the moral perspective which stems from the class interests and ethical outlook of the revolutionary proletariat, they must be conscious of this dynamic and take it into account with every decision they make.
Communist Morality is Dialectical and Materialist
The moral perspective of the revolutionary proletariat is, by its very formulation, materialist and dialectical. It works to resolve moral dilemmas both through a perspective that is informed by things happening within the material world and through a scientific method of assessing the material world in a rational manner. Just as dialectical analysis is critical for the pursuit of a proper strategy for the advancement of revolutionary goals, it is also essential for maintaining a moral standing while advancing the cause of revolution. The revolutionary must balance the utility of actions performed on behalf of revolution with the costs of those actions as they regard the alienation of the proletariat as a representative and defender of the proletariat.
It is in this way that a dialectics of morality reveals itself to not only be a superior method for moral analysis, yet we also gain insight into how naturally human beings apply dialectics in their interaction with the world. Earlier we discussed how most people, even if they follow metaphysical norms of action, are capable of deviating from those norms when the situation merits it. The ability to strike that balance, to understand and attempt to rationalize their deviation from metaphysical constructs, demonstrates an attempt at dialectical thinking.
Dialectics is something we use every day, whether we recognize it or not. It informs our way of thinking on a number of strategic and philosophical endeavors. As such, it is the perfect means of rationalizing what makes an act moral within the context it is carried out. The material conditions of a situation determine the necessary outcome, not abstract virtues or mores, and the mechanism for determining moral action must be grounded in a scientific analysis.
Conclusion: The Revolutionary Imperative is a Moral Imperative
The communist is no moral nihilist. Rather, there is a stringent moral imperative that guides each and every communist worth their salt. Revolution is, itself, a moral imperative. It must be achieved, must be attained and must be advanced in order to both advance the greatest utility for the working class, and to defend them from the base injustices that are created by the exploitation of workers, to overcome the pain and despair that alienation brings.
While the ends do not justify the means in all cases, the proletariat has every moral justification to challenge capitalism’s dominion, to defend against its injustices and to challenge the established order built on the blood of workers.
Bourgeois morality may condemn this perspective all they like, but it must be understood that all of these condemnations serve only the interests of their power, their exploitation and their hegemony. There is no justice in their justice, no morality in their preachings, that can be said to apply to the proletariat. The proletariat has their own morality, one that truly serves the greatest good and the greatest justice. It is for this reason that each and every communist is a moral actor.