“Anatoli Lunacharski, when did he die?” That was the question my philosophy professor, I.M. Bochenski, put to the class repeatedly at the University of Fribourg in 1950. I only understand the importance of the question now, as I try to come to a deeper understanding of just how drastic the radical leftists of the Obama Administration are seeking to overturn basic values of our Judaeo-Christian tradition that have been the underpinnings of our American experiment in republican democracy that we inherited from the founders of our nation. The efforts of the Boleshevik, Anatoli Lunacharski, to introduce ethics into the Marxist political theory, and his failure, represented a turning point in the development of radical leftist politics. Now in the second half of the term of Barack Hussein Obama we begin to experience the firsthand part of that sad legacy in the attack on conscience in health care.
One of the most perceptive essays on the subject of the left’s struggle with ethics was written by Ezequiel Adamovsky in 2007 and I reproduce it here.
For a Radical Ethics of Equality
What does it mean today to be Anticapitalist? Today, left identity is an identity in crisis. Reconstructing a movement for radical emancipation is therefore going to require a critical examination of our legacy. This task quickly reveals that one of the biggest shortcomings of the left tradition is to be found in the lack of an ethical dimension to political action. The following essay attempts to analyse the reasons behind this inherited ethical vacuum and its impact on left practices. It goes over some key moments in the history of the relationship between moral thinking and emancipatory politics, including the Marxist tradition’s rejection of moral thinking and some later attempts to recover it. Furthermore, it argues the absolute necessity of anchoring all militant will to radical egalitarian ethics, capable of guiding our actions in a clearly emancipatory direction.
The radical lefts, be they Marxist, Communist, Guevarist, Socialist, Anarchist, Autonomist, Trotskyist, Maoist, Leninist, etc., beyond doctrinal differences, spring from a shared basic thrust: the desire to live in common, in a society of equals free from oppression and exploitation. This is the perennial historical truth of the left.
However, these ideas have been, and continue to be, put to uses that deviate from that fundamental thrust, which at times may even contradict it. An examination of the implicit motives behind left-wing discourses throughout history quickly reveals examples of a clearly ideological use. “Ideological” in the Marxist sense of the expression: Leftist discourses whose function is to mask or channel wills to power that are not or cannot be openly expressed. This implicit function consciously or unconsciously subverts the primary emancipatory vocation that originally gave rise to the ideas of the left.
Let us look at some historical examples. The ideas of Socialism, Communism or Marxism, for example, were used on a number of occasions during the 19th and 20th centuries for their capacity to demolish liberal individualism. The critique of the atomisation of society and the empire of selfishness generated by liberal capitalism has found extremely powerful weapons in the arsenal of leftist thought. However, these weapons have not always been used to further an emancipatory project. They have also been used to justify the forcible homogenisation of society under a political banner. As individualism erodes the collective, these projects have sought to restore a national collective (with or without private property or the market). Various examples of this use of leftist ideas can be cited: Mussolini’s fascism began among the same ranks as Italian revolutionary socialism. The course taken by the Duce is by no means unique: it is similar to that of other Socialists such as Sorel and to dozens of referential thinkers across the world.1 The old Communist party of the USSR is nowadays a nationalist, anti-liberal, anti-Semitic group that nevertheless preserves its communist thinking in more than just the name. In all these cases, only those elements that are “convenient” are taken from leftist ideas, such as the culture of a strong State, the subordination of the individual to the needs of the collective, the critique of liberal democracy, etc. The more clearly emancipatory ideas – equality, self-determination, cooperation, solidarity, and liberty – are left by the wayside.
Alongside this ideological use of leftist ideas, Marxism can sometimes be found being used as an “ideology of modernisation”. Lenin himself argued that Socialism is “soviet power plus electrification”. This use has fed the self-justifying discourse of several dictatorships, from the Chinese elites who headed the restoration of Capitalism, to theoreticians of “African Socialism” such as Julius Nyerere or tyrants of “scientific Socialism” such as the Somali Siyad Barre. Once again, from the wide range Marxist ideas, only those of strong State planning (supported by compulsory unanimity from below), the imperative of developing productive forces, and the critique of the bourgeoisie and of liberalism in the name of an equality (restricted to the purely economic sphere) are taken up.
There is another ideological use of leftist ideas, also related to the ideal of “modernisation”, that has existed in variable proportions in socialist movements all over the world. The “anti-capitalism of the professional and managerial classes” described by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, which, rather than aiming for the emancipation of the workers, looked to a world “scientifically” directed by an elite of “people who possess the knowledge”. By using Marxism, private property is made the object of criticism, but the implicit ideal is one of techno-bureaucratic social management.2 Once again, self-determination, liberty, and the autonomy of a socially cooperative whole are left by the wayside.
Finally, there are “inverted” uses of left wing ideas. Instead of using them to justify the homogeneity of society, the scientific dominion of a bureaucratic vanguard, or a strong State, they are used to mask the most radical individualism. Many people or small groups of “anarchists” and “autonomists” (or however you want to call them) take the leftist tradition of rejecting oppression, the State, and authority in general, but only to claim their own personal rights to act according to their own will, being accountable to nothing and nobody. In this case, leftism acts as an “aesthetic” varnish and a “lifestyle” to justify an attitude that is as selfish as that of bourgeoisie, and which is often much more elitist in its disdain for “ordinary” people.
Some historical effects of leftist ideas put into practice can be added to this analysis: the crimes of Pol Pot and Sendero Luminoso; the GULAG and the massacre at Tiananmen; the repression of left wing companions in the name of Socialism wherever a (single) party has taken power; the “vanguardist” manipulation of others and those countless everyday examples of mutual petty hostility and “internal totalitarianism” that anyone who has been involved in a left wing party or group is familiar with. All this in the name of left wing ideas.
How is it that such sublime ideas coexist with such contradictory uses and effects? How is it that the ideas of the left so often become a path to the practices of the right?
Ideas without ethics
If the implicit humanism of the ideas of the left has so often been absent in its practices, it is because the left tradition, or at least its hegemonic currents, lacks an ethical dimension. Indeed, any concern for the ethical evaluation of actions has been actively eradicated from its politics.
Reduced to the simplest formula, the problem of ethics consists in establishing the criteria that help us to define which behaviours or actions are good, and which ones are bad (and should therefore be avoided). Ethics normally includes, explicitly or implicitly, the notion of responsibility for actions, that is to say, to whom or what should I be morally accountable for what I do or fail to do. It usually also includes – often implicitly– some “situational” provision, which determines the specific contexts in which the general code can be legitimately broken. Taking Christianity as an example: the ethics, explicitly formulated in the Ten Commandments and in the doctrine of sin, emanate directly from the divine; the laws are eternal and go beyond the fickle opinions of men. Breakers of this code answer directly to God (beyond the fact that the Church or temporal power can, in the meanwhile, punish or forgive actions). The pastoral presence of God, whose gaze reaches into the darkest corner of every soul, acts as guardian and guarantor of ethical behaviour in the herd. As with all ethics, in practice, Christian ethics include ad hoc provisions that makes it more flexible in extreme situations. Despite the commandments, it is not a mortal sin to kill someone in self-defence, nor to steal an apple rather than starve to death.
How does the left orient its political decisions, from the broad strategic lines of a party, to the day-to-day actions of a militant? What code of legitimate behaviour do we use, and to whom do we respond for the things that we do or do not do?
The visceral rejection of ethics by many people on the left never ceases to surprise me. I have seen countless companions become jumpy when, for one reason or another, they hear someone else use vocabulary referring to the universe of moral. If forced to discuss failings in someone’s behaviour they always clarify that “it is not a question of morals”, as if it was not proper for someone on the left to talk about things being “good” or “bad”. Although many people on the left are among the most altruistic, kind and charitable people to be found in this world, most would doubtless be uncomfortable with being considered “good” or “kind” (an adjective that, in the cultural universe of the left, evokes a sense of “weakness”).
This strange contradiction in militant culture came about because the left has rejected the question of moral evaluation of behaviour, reducing ethics, to a mere “logic”. Thus conducts and actions are not guided by what could be considered “good” or “bad”, but by what is “correct” or “incorrect”. The measure of “correctness” is defined not by ethics, but by its correspondence to a given political truth: a correct action is one that follows the correct political line. A political line is established as being “correct”, not through an exercise of ethical evaluation, but based on the knowledge of a truth (for example, the direction in which “Historical Laws” point, the assumed dictates of “revolutionary conscience”, the postulates expressed in this or that canonical text by Marx, Bakunin, etc.) An action that pushes in the correct historical direction – for example, inciting a group of young people to join a direct action, deliberately keeping from them information about its possible consequences – can be considered “correct” independent of whether it is ethically reprehensible. The important thing is not that the action is correct because it is “good”, but because it could be “effective”.
The eviction of ethics
Ethics and leftism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, traces of serious consideration of the ethical dimension can be found in the (misnamed) “Utopian Socialism” of the 19th century and in a number of minor currents within Socialist and Anarchist traditions. For Kropotkin’s anarchism, for example, an ethics of a new type, one that was different from religious and metaphysical precepts, was fundamental to “give men an ideal” and to “guide them in action”. Worried by the amorality of the time, derived from liberalism, Darwinism or the ideas of Nietzsche, Kropotkin worked intensively from 1904 until his death in 1921 to write a treatise on ethics. He argued for an ethics of solidarity and sought to demonstrate that it was universal, emanating from the naturally sociable nature of mankind (and animals) and the impulse to “mutual aid”.3 Similar concerns can be found in Tolstoy’s “Christian Socialism”, which had become a genuine mass movement by the beginning of the 20th century. From the teachings of a Christ stripped of his divine status, Tolstoy derived general ethical mandates (unconnected with any religiosity) that should not only guide political action, but should also prefigure the world we are aiming for: love thy neighbour, humility, forgiveness, etc.4
However, the Marxist tradition fiercely opposed any ethical discourse. Marx himself dismissed such concerns as irrelevant: in the Communist Manifesto he considers them a distraction that interferes with understanding of the material basis of poverty and social ills, and in The German Ideology he went so far as to argue that “communists do not preach any moral at all”. Students of Marx have recently suggested that his rejection of ethics was simply the result of a “tactical” necessity to mark a difference between his ideas and other debates current at the time, and that Marxism is, in fact, a form of humanism that contains a strong implicit ethics. Nevertheless, even these authors recognise that Marx’s attitude profoundly marked the Marxist tradition, which from that point on maintained hostility towards any ethical discourse (with the exception of a marginal variant of “ethical Marxism”, represented by authors such as Ernst Bloch, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Henri Lefebvre, or Mihailo Markovic).5 Karl Kautsky, the principal Marxist theorist of the Second International, dedicated his book Ethics and the materialist concept of History (1906) to arguing that historical progress obeys laws that have very little to do with moral ideas. Therefore, he argued, Socialists should look to science for guidance in their actions, because “science is always above ethics”.6 In his article “Tactics and Ethics” (1919) Lukács agreed with Kautsky in that decisions about political tactics should answer only to the tribunal of history: if they are in accordance with “the sense of world history”, then they are “correct”, and therefore, by necessity “ethical”.7 Many other examples can be found.8 What is important for our purposes is that this type of reduction of the ethical dimension to a mere problem of “logic” or of understanding what is correct or incorrect in terms of some Laws of historical necessity, was translated in practice – not only among Marxists but also among people on the left in general – into an eradication of all sense of personal responsibility, and the typical principle according to which “the end sanctifies the means”.
Within the Marxist tradition itself, there were early reactions against this alliance between politics and “science” that left no room for ethics. In Religion and Socialism, a noteworthy book written in 1907 and now all but forgotten, Anatoli Lunacharski – who would soon form part of the first Bolshevik government – proposed complementing Marxism’s “austere, modest and arid philosophy”, with aesthetics and ethics, a “science of values” of the sort that is lacking today. Essentially, Marx and Engels occupied themselves with “knowing” the world; but the “the complete relationship between man and the world is only attained when the processes are not only known, but also valued”; action “emerges only from knowledge and evaluation”. Science does not occupy itself with questions of the heart: it responds to “how?” and “why?”, but it is not concerned with questions of “good?” or “bad?”. Religion, on the other hand, responds to these questions and reaches a practical conclusion: “it proves the presence of evil in the world” and “attempt to defeat it”. It is taking this function of ethical and aesthetic evaluation into account that Lunacharski argues that Socialism should “imitate” religion (needless to say, forgetting its theological and dogmatic elements) and become a genuine cosmology.
The relationship that Lunacharski traces between the ethical element and the problem of hegemony is very interesting. It is clear that Socialism is the cause of the proletariat; but is it also good for all humanity from a moral point of view? Lunacharski complains that orthodox Marxists reject that question, because for them it is enough that it be correct for the proletariat alone (they say that Socialism is not a faith that looks to win converts outside the working class). Nevertheless – our author goes on to say–, this is a limited conception: the proletariat needs to achieve “ideological hegemony” if it wants to reach power (something they would not be able to do alone, against everyone else). If it is to conquer the support of the non-workers, he concludes, it is necessary for Socialism to present itself as a high ideal for everyone who is not corrupted by his or her class interest.9
Lunacharski’s position was rejected by practically all of his contemporaries, and Marxism remained an “arid philosophy” without any ethical dimension. And yet, although not explicitly expressed in its doctrines and theories, the left tradition has not lacked an implicit “militant culture”, that values some things above others. Less present in its books than in its practices, some of these implicit values of the left derive from its alliance with science and the ensuing rejection of ethics. For example, few political traditions have valued intelligence, study, canonical authors, and theory as a guide to action so much. Few have so highly awarded the “virtues” of intransigence, orthodoxy, firmness or unconditionally sticking to an organisation, philosophy or programme. On the other hand, there is a notable “punishment” within left cultures of other conditions that, from an alternative point of view, could be considered “virtues”: kindness, flexibility, capacity for negotiation, disposition to dialogue and consensus, respect for others, doubt. Although rejected in theory, an implicit moral world nevertheless exists in the practices of the left, which clearly distinguishes between the “righteous” and “sinners”.
The type of “virtues” stimulated by the alliance between socialism and science are precisely those that create most problems for cooperation between equals. By guiding its actions in accordance with the mandates of a transcendental Truth (extracted from science, knowledge of supposed historical Laws, or some canonical text), the left makes itself impenetrable to others in two ways. On the one hand, it shuts its ears to the simple “opinions” of the uninitiated (that is to say, those who have not demonstrated a grasp of the Truth), which leads to a conspicuous unwillingness to reach agreements with them; on the other hand, it implicitly rejects any responsibility towards its fellows. Protected by the Truth, the left remains untouchable to the judgements of others. By retiring themselves from the world of equals in this way, leftists often adopt that typical air of self-sufficiency and arrogant condescension towards others, and that vanguardist style that can be found even amongst those who declare themselves opposed to all vanguards (but who nevertheless feel themselves to be “illuminated” by their own Truth). In this way, we end up in the paradox indicated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau more than two hundred years ago, in one of those ironic phrases laden with truth that he liked to shoot against his fellow philosophers. He questioned those who would say they loved Humankind, but only to avoid the obligation of loving any human being in particular. Rousseau’s critique remains useful today to illustrate the tragedy of a left without ethics.
Communism as an (immanent) ethics of the equals
If it is not from science, where should we find guidance for political practice? If not to Truth, to what or whom should our actions be accountable? Here let us return to the problem of the left and the ethical dimension that is indispensable if we are to protect it from ideological abuse, and to clearly separate it from right-wing practices. The beginning and end of any anticapitalist politics – and this is the central thesis of this essay – should be a radical ethics of equality.
A radical ethics of equality is, above all, an immanent ethics. Unlike other ethics – for example, that of Kant, that of the Socratic philosophers, or that included in religious principles – that claim to come from some eternal order (rational, natural or divine), ours should be firmly anchored in this world. As with all of social life, the universe of moral criteria should be put within the grasp of real men and women. To say it in another way, the content of this ethics should be the fruit of social agreements that recognise the needs of life in common, from the most universal (that is to say, those that relate to human beings as a species) to the most historical and situational. That an ethical code be something more or less permanent and widely shared does not mean that it should be considered eternal or universal, nor that its authority should be deposited in gods or transcendental Truths. An immanent ethic is an ethic that comes from us.
A radical ethic of equality is also an ethic of dialogue. It recognises that society is not made up of isolated individuals, but nor is it a collective that exists beyond the specific individuals who compose it (to postulate a collective over and above people, as certain leftists do, is to fall once again into the transcendental). Personal existence, as the young Bakhtin knew,10 is only possible in interaction with the other: it is by the means of the image, the body, the gaze, and the word of my fellows that I exist as a whole person. Social life is nothing more than this ongoing dialogue with our fellows, those who are alive, those who have died, and those who are yet to come. An ethical existence is, therefore, that of people who know themselves to be obliged to be able to answer to the other for what they are, for what they do, and for what they fail to do. An ethics of dialogue therefore requires commitment to our fellows, a personal existence that assumes its responsibility for the other, and which does not look for excuses or alibis nor does it retreat into the monologue or to devotion to a transcendent (be it God, Science, the Nation, the People, Class, the Party or the Individual). An ethical existence without alibis, is one of fidelity to the specific situation and of accountability to others for every act. And it can only be considered a radical ethics of equality if the commitment is to the other just as they are. (Accepting accountability for one’s actions only before those who think or act in the same way as I do – the Party or the “conscious” militants – is nothing more than another form of vanguardism that makes us immune to the imperative to be responsible to “ordinary” men and women.) This radical commitment to others just as they are does not mean ignoring class differences and the antagonism that shape our society. For we are talking about an ethics of equality, whose raison d’être is precisely that of protecting life in common from those who, under any excuse, attempt to place themselves above others. That is why those who have refused to accept being equals, at all times and in all places have feared dialogic and immanent ethics. It is because the “unequals” cannot be accountable to others, that the justification of their privilege (“private law”) has always rested upon some authority or transcendent. Radical egalitarian ethics is, by definition, power’s fiercest enemy.
What would the specific content of an ethics of equals be? What virtues would it promote? What conducts would it condemn? It would be, firstly and fundamentally, and ethics of caring for the Other, expressed in a codification of virtues and defects that values all that which aims at cooperation, solidarity, empathy, humility, respect for diversity, the capacity for consensus, etc., and which “represses” impulses to competition, selfishness, ambition to power, intellectual arrogance, stubbornness, obsequiousness, or narcissism.
Having reached this point, it may sound perhaps disappointing to find out that a radical ethics of equality would not be very different, in its specific content, from the moral codes that human beings have produced since times immemorial. However, if one does not have a vanguardist disposition, there is nothing to be ashamed in this absence of big novelties. Perhaps communism is, at the end of the day, nothing more nor less than the realisation of the dreams of a life together as equals that have always existed in all times and in all places.
1 See STERNHELL, Zeev et al.: El nacimiento de la ideología fascista, Madrid, Siglo XXI, 1994.
2 EHRENREICH, Barbara & John: “The Professional-Managerial Class”, in Pat Walker (ed.): Between Labor and Capital, Boston, South End Press, 1979, pp. 5-45.
3 His articles and assorted notes were colelcted together in KROPOTKIN, Pedro: Origen y evolución de la moral, Buenos Aires, Americalee, 1945.
4 See TOLSTOI, Leon: Cuál es mi fe, Barcelona, Mentora, 1927, pp. 11-21 [publ. orig. 1884].
5 See WILDE, Lawrence: Ethical Marxism and its Radical Critics, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 1998; idem (ed.): Marxism’s Ethical Thinkers, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2001.
6 KAUTSKY, Karl: Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History, Londres, Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1906, chapter five. Available at
7 LUKACS, Georg: Tactics and Ethics, in Political Writings, 1919-1929, N.L.B., 1972.
8 Another interesting example in this vein can be found in WOOD SIMMONS, Mary: Some Ethical Problems, International Socialist Review, vol. 1, no. 16, December, 1900.
9 LUNACHARSKI, Anatoli: Religión y socialismo, Salamanca, Sígueme, 1976, pp. 22, 25-27, 55, 262.
10 The radical egalitarian ethic that we propose here is inspired by two fundamental texts by Mijail Bajtin, “Arte y responsabilidad” and “Autor y personaje en la actividad estética”, included in BAJTIN, Mijail: Estética de la creación verbal, Buenos Aires, Siglo XXI, 2002, pp. 11-199.