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1983. Ernest Mandel: Marx, Engels and the problem of a double morality

27 November 2022
Ernest Mandel

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 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 Monfort’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:

‘But, father, what would be the best way to gain an advantage over the enemy?’

‘By Zeus,’ said he, ‘this is no easy or simple question that you ask now, my son; but, let me tell you, the man who proposes to do that must be designing and cunning, wily and deceitful, a thief and a robber, outdoing the enemy at every point.’
– quoted in Antoine Brognard, Lutte de classe et morale marxiste (Paris, 1969)

Max Weber also justified the ‘double standard of morality’ with his subtle distinction between Gesinnungsethik [ethics of conviction] and Verantwortungsethik [ethics of responsibility].

The fact that this double standard of morality applies within class society is an important reason why Marx and Engels advocate the abolition of all class societies. They advocate a social order in which all forms of violence between people would disappear. Their thesis is that this becomes possible only if the separation of society into classes, the existence of the state and of repressive institutions (army, gendarmerie, police, judiciary, etc.), as well as the material-social conditions that give rise to that class division and that state, in turn, disappear.

Marx and Engels not only established that a ‘double moral standard’ exists in class society. They also explained the reason for it. Human beings can ensure the conditions of their material and mental (communicative) reproduction only through a minimum of mutual cooperation, through a division of labour and collaboration. As social beings, humans are forced, on pain of ruin, to act as cooperative beings. But primitive humans are materially and communicatively capable only of cooperating within a limited circle. What lies outside that circle is treated as unknown and hostile. Whether or not this follows from an aggressive instinct inherited from proto-humanity is not to be addressed here. Suffice it to underline that, under certain social conditions, humanity’s plasticity enables it to limit or eliminate to a large extent the manifestations of this hypothetical instinct.

With the growth of the social productive forces and of the social division of labour, the range of cooperation tends to expand more and more. By creating the world market, the capitalist system begins to extend this range to the whole of humanity. But at the same time, social contradictions and tensions multiply, especially when society is separated into classes and the state (including ‘many’ separated states) is born. The hostility, the conflicts, instead of being limited to relations vis-à-vis ‘foreigners’, increasingly intensify within societies.

The ‘generally valid moral principles’ – the Ten Commandments and all that corresponds to those in cultural circles outside of Judeo-Christian societies – are nothing but the codification of rules which allow for more or less normal cooperation between individual members of society.

No society, no social cooperation and no human existence are possible if members of a society regularly kill or eat each other. The ‘special’ moral principles, which in practice regulate relations between antagonistic classes and states, are nothing but the expression of the fact, that under certain conditions of social tension, within the class struggle, class interests (group interests) get the upper hand over interests of individuals, or over those of all individuals within an abstract social context.4

For it is no longer about preserving abstract society in general. It is about preserving a specific form of society, i.e. preserving specific social institutions. Slave owners who are willing to kill thousands of slaves for being disobedient or rebellious (or even as a deterrent against potential disobedience or rebellion) are not so stupid as to believe that they could survive without slave labour. They act this way because they are convinced that, thanks to such murders, hundreds of thousands of slaves will continue to do their slave labour, whereas if disobedience or rebellion were generalized, this would not be the case (or less so).

This shows how nonsensical it is when Julien Freund, quoting the 17th-century Catholic scholar Gabriel Naudé, underlines the ‘duty’ of a ‘statesman’ to defend the ‘security’ of citizens, including in extreme cases with the use of violence; supposedly this would be the function of politics, the role of the state, etc. But what is at stake is by no means the ‘security’ of all citizens (slaves are not protected but murdered in the example we raised). The goal is to secure the property and privileges of some citizens over others. The justification of the ‘double standard’ (of political acts that are contrary to certain moral rules) clearly relies on concealing the specific interests that such acts serve. These interests have nothing to do with defending the interests of the community as a whole.

The basis of the ‘double standard’ is the existence of antagonistic interests, of periodically explosive social conflicts. This explosiveness expresses itself in phenomena such as intense class struggles, rebellions and suppression of rebellions, wars, civil wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. Such explosions have existed as long as class society has existed; this is an indisputable fact. The only thing civilization has been able to achieve so far has been an attempt (not often successful) to subject this violence to certain regulations (national constitutions, international law), not to abolish or even permanently limit it.

Marx and Engels postulate that within a classless society this double moral could disappear, because with the disappearance of social antagonisms, universal moral rules could regulate the relations between all people. This, of course, remains a working hypothesis, an attractive and beguiling one, whose validity can be confirmed or exposed as too optimistic by the practice of a world-scale classless society.

Ultimately, then, double morality rests on the tension between ‘individual human relations’ versus ‘group relations’ within specific social contexts. Those who assume that humans are aggressive beings that will never be able to completely eliminate their instinctive enmity against fellow human beings forget that humans are also cooperative beings, beings that can never completely eliminate their instinctive cooperation with other humans. Without this they cannot survive.

The first systematic elaboration of a Marxist conception of morality was developed by Karl Kautsky in his work Ethik und Materialistische Geschichtsauffassung (Berlin, 1906). Kautsky has been accused of defending a ‘crudely naturalistic thesis’ in that work.5 This reproach seems us to be exaggerated, although it is true that Kautsky (like, incidentally, Plekhanov before him) draws unnecessary parallels between human morality and behavioural patterns in the animal world, refers too much to ‘social instincts’, and leaves aside more specific anthropological aspects.


The existence of this double moral standard in class society inevitably leads to the following question: should the exploited and oppressed classes in turn apply this ‘double standard’ in their liberation struggles, or should they, from the start of their self-defence and emancipation, seek to apply the Kantian imperative also to group relations (relations between classes, between states, etc.)?6

One can assess the answer given to this question by Marx and Engels and their main disciples, on two different levels: the level of actual historical experience and that of the desired goal.

On the level of historical experience, for instance, there is again no doubt regarding the actual course of events. There is not a single example in history of an exploited and oppressed class, or even of an oppressed group of individuals, who in their liberation struggle renounced the use of means that are out of the question in normal interpersonal relations. Neither the slaves in antiquity, nor the serfs in the Middle Ages, nor the free peasants threatened by lord, clergy and or court, nor the ‘heretics’ in conflict with the state churches, nor the modern bourgeoisie, renounced violence in their struggle for emancipation. The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of the French Revolution solemnly proclaim the right to revolt and revolution against illegitimate authority. In this they follow the doctrine of Spinoza and Locke, among others. All modern political movements, without exception, accept in practice, under certain circumstances, the use of violence and of other practices that are disapproved of within an individual ethical context.

One might object, surely this does not apply to the advocates of absolute non-violence, who fundamentally reject any form of war, any collaboration in wars, etc? Given the actual use of violence by the ruling class, however, this is an exception in appearance only. Whoever does not actively resist violence on the part of the rulers, whoever does not try to eliminate that violence here and now, objectively becomes complicit in the (temporary) triumph of such violence. This is so even if they postulate that in the long run non-violent resistance would achieve superior results. In practice, this means sacrificing a whole generation, if not successive generations of people, to a long-term ideal, the achievement of which, by the way, is not certain.

The clearest example is that of the Third Reich during the Second World War. Those (like Gandhi) who proposed passive resistance in the occupied territories to undermine Nazi rule in the long run, forgot that in the meantime all Jews, Gypsies, ‘inferior races’, Marxists, trade unionists, humanists, etc. would literally be exterminated. Such advocates of pacifism were willing to sacrifice tens of millions of human lives to the triumph of an idea. So for the pacifists, too, the end justifies the (inhuman) means. Equally nonsensical was the infamous statement by the German Social Democratic leaders during the decisive weeks of Hitler’s seizure of power: ‘We do not want a general strike or armed resistance, because we do not want to spill workers’ blood.’ But by letting Hitler come to power without making every effort to prevent it, the blood of millions of workers was shed, certainly more than would have been shed in an armed general strike in the winter of 1932-33.

One must add, that the leaders of German (and not just German: also French, British, Austrian, Belgian, Dutch, Scandinavian) Social Democracy in 1914 and in 1918 were ready to accept violence for the sake of the ‘defence of the fatherland’ and the fight against ‘Bolshevism’. This implied accepting the millions of deaths of the First World War and the murder of thousands of German workers in December 1918–spring 1919 as ‘lesser evils’. So the difference between the Social Democrats and the evil Leninists did not lie in rejecting violence. The difference was in the choice of the ends for which such means could be used; national defence and defending the bourgeois democratic state were acceptable goals, but preventing a fascist coup or overthrowing capitalism were not.7

There is no way out of this dilemma. Faced with the terror and violence used by the ruling class and their states to perpetuate exploitation, coercion and rule, the exploited and oppressed have no option but to use all possible means for their liberation. Efficient means include certain means that go against the ethical rules that usually regulate relationships between individuals.8

As far as the ethical side of the Marxist attitude towards organized violence is concerned, its starting point is that it is morally irresponsible and unacceptable to identify the violence used by slavers to perpetuate slavery with the violence used by slaves to free themselves. True Christians always have in mind the Crucified One. We Marxists should always have in mind the crosses along the Via Appia, on which Spartacus’s fellow combatants bled to death. We should always have in mind the thousands of prisoners of war of the Paris Commune slaughtered by General Galliffet’s ‘law and order’ hordes. In the light of such historical experiences, regarding revolution and counter-revolution as the same is according to our ethical principle profoundly immoral.9


Does this mean that Marx and Engels accept the ‘double moral standard’ and go far as eliminating the dialectic of ends and means? Do they reduce the problem of ethics in the class struggle to a vulgar pragmatic politicization (Realpolitik)? Not at all.

First, Marx clearly stated that a holy end cannot be achieved by unholy means.10 And second, the formula ‘all means that benefit the liberation struggle of the working class are acceptable’, in itself solves nothing. Because this formula implies the following questions: What really benefits the proletarian class struggle? Who decides what is beneficial? What is the criterion? Within what time frame should the judgement be made whether certain means benefit or harm the proletarian class struggle?

Here we arrive at the astonishing result that, although the teaching of Marx and Engels rules out any absolute ethical standard applicable to all group conflicts as unrealistic, non-existent and anti-emancipatory, Marxism today constitutes the only political current that considers the use of certain means in the class struggle as unacceptable. This applies to all means, that do not raise but lower the class consciousness of the working classes, jeopardize the self-confidence of wage-earners, undermine their belief in the justice of their cause, all the means that weaken their unity and sense of solidarity. Such means are out of the question because they are ineffective in terms of achieving the final goal – the building of a worldwide classless society – even if they would help achieve immediate objectives in the class struggle (which, by the way, is by no means certain).

This consciousness is not an absolute moral principle. It has a practical material basis, namely the fact that the socialist revolution and the socialist reconstruction of society cannot be spontaneous, but can only be realized through the merging of the actual class struggle of the existing proletariat on the one hand, and a conscious socialist programme (what Engels called socialist science) on the other. This merger, and hence the construction of classless society, is delayed, if not made impossible, when the average class consciousness of the existing working class, i.e. the broad popular masses, declines. Anything that undermines this class consciousness (and everything we have just described by it) undermines the possibility of the victory of socialism, irrespective of immediate supposedly Realpolitik results.

Of course, it remains a point of contention whether certain political measures, tactics, modes of behaviour, etc. actually lead to a raising or a lowering of proletarian class consciousness. One can never be completely sure about this, certainly not a priori. That is one of the reasons why a one-party system corresponds neither to proletarian reality nor to proletarian class interests. Political pluralism and socialist democracy (workers’ democracy) are necessary both before and after the overthrow of capitalism. Our starting point was and remains not that of absolute moral principles but that of the real and desired historical process, the process leading to the socialist goal. Based on proletarian class interests and from the standpoint of the necessity of building a socialist world, we advocate the subjection of political tactics to certain principles.

This means there is no unity of means and ends, as claimed by some apologists of Stalinism and of other currents of bureaucracies in the working-class.11 There does exist a tension, an opposition, between means and ends. If one wants to put it like this, the means–ends dialectic points towards a dialectical unity of opposites.

Some want to see a contradiction between the ‘historically determined’ relationship of Marx and the Marxists in regards to morality on the one hand, and their use of moral indignation and their appeal to ‘proletarian ethics’ as a political weapon on the other. If morality is ultimately determined by the socio-economic relations in each particular society – in a class society, therefore, morals can only be understood or explained as a class morality – then with what right can Marxists (socialists, communists) claim that they represent ‘higher morals’? Is this not another example of a ‘double moral standard’, whereby what is in the interest of one class is considered ‘bad’, while what represents the interest of another class is suddenly elevated to the level of the ‘absolute good’?

Some dogmatic Marxist circles answer this argument too quickly by pointing out that there is a hierarchy between social classes in terms of their position in the process of historical progress. To this hierarchy would correspond a hierarchy of ethical values, of ‘class morality’.

A historically progressive class embodies a historically progressive morality in the face of a historically reactionary class. Consider for example the struggle of the revolutionary bourgeoisie against torture in the 16th-19th centuries, which reflects a higher moral ideal than that of the semi-feudal nobility and absolute monarchy that adhered to Inquisition, auto-da-fé and torture, represented by clerical morality. True, during successive stages of historical development, the same social class can play first a progressive and then a reactionary role. For example, consider the increasing reluctance of today’s bourgeoisie to absolutely and unconditionally condemn torture (consider Nazi Germany, Franco’s Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, Somoza’s Nicaragua, etc.). But such a development is not inconsistent with a suggested hierarchy of moral values.

This argument is partly convincing, but only partly. It is only partly convincing because it still rests on an unfounded and therefore purely formal analogy.

When Marx and Marxists use the terms ‘social progress’ or ‘historical progress’, they refer to a strictly defined, almost precisely measurable process: the possibilities of development of the productive forces, measured by average labour productivity. In this context, if one speaks of a ‘higher morality’ (higher ethical values) being embodied by the social class that enables the further development of the productive forces, one encounters an insoluble contradiction: are all the ‘moral values’ of the ‘more progressive social class’ really progressive, including those that it needs to legitimize and perpetuate its class rule over the exploited and oppressed class?

Marx and all orthodox Marxists would reject this thesis with (moral) indignation! Where exactly can one draw the line between the ‘progressive’ and the ‘reactionary’ aspects of the morality of a specific ruling class?12 Do not all its moral values form a coherent ‘system’, an ‘ideology’? How can that system be ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ at the same time?

In my opinion, this difficulty can be solved only when we understand the underlying problem: the problem of history as a continuum, as the unity and contradiction of continuity and discontinuity.

The historical process does not only consist of ruptures, revolutions, of qualitative leaps in the relations of production and the class nature of the state. It is a unity of evolution and revolution. The forces of production permanently change (they grow, stagnate, decline). The relationship of forces between classes changes perpetually. Only under certain circumstances does this lead to a ‘great leap forward’ of historical progress. But without ‘a thousand small steps’, without countless ‘temporary defeats’ and some ‘partial victories’, the historical victory – the realization of a socialist classless society – is inconceivable and impossible. Thus, the ‘ethical values’ that underpin any particular system of ‘class morality’ should not be viewed only in light of their usefulness for the immediate development of the productive forces. They can and must also be judged according to their influence on human emancipation in general, which for Marx largely coincides with the struggle for the abolition of private property, for the emancipation of wage labour and the end of all forms of alienated labour, of the market economy and of the social (functional, not professional) division of labour.

The moment that we use this double criterion of historical progress, we can indeed compare Christian morality with antiquity, compare Reformed and humanist morality with scholasticism, compare the morality of the revolutionary bourgeoisie with religious morality. Then we can separate their ‘progressive’ from their ‘reactionary’ aspects. Everything that serves socio-economic progress must not only promote the development of the productive forces but should also at least not hinder (and, in the last resort, stimulate) human emancipation in the long run. Anything that thwarts this emancipation in the long term (limiting freedoms, leading to the of banning trade unions or perpetuating women’s oppression and racism) is morally reactionary, even if in the short term it promotes an unfolding of the capitalist productive forces.

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

These gentlemen, have, therefore, no suspicion of the fact that class-consciousness is the consciousness of the solidarity of all proletarians, that to propagate class-consciousness means nothing else than to propagate the knowledge of the duties which the individual owes to the whole of his class. Have Messrs. Sanders and Forster never heard of the unmentionable sacrifices which the class-conscious proletarians undergo not for ‘purely individual and selfish interests’, but for the cause of their class, not only of their own country but of all civilized countries. In any case, the class-conscious proletarians have disdained to hawk about with their ethic, but they have starved, suffered want, sacrificed their night and Sunday's rest, sacrificed their last savings, their freedom and often also their health – not for themselves but for the majority of the disinherited, before all for those among them who could not help themselves.

But proletarian class-struggle and proletarian class-consciousness are ethical factors of the first importance not simply because they develop the fullest sacrifice of the individual to the cause of the whole of their class and bring out an unusually strong sense of duty towards it.

The proletariat, as the lowest class of the community, cannot emancipate itself without making an end to all oppression and exploitation. So the class-conscious proletariat becomes, wherever it becomes a real power, the advocate of all, of oppressed classes, oppressed nations, and an oppressed sex, as far as their interests do not collide with social development. From this historical role duties come to it which lie outside of its direct class interests […]

The more revolutionary, the more idealist the proletarian class struggle, the more the final aim is accentuated, the greater is its ethical force, the force for the moral regeneration of the proletariat. The practical detail work of the proletariat which otherwise too easily produces the tendency to degenerate the proletariat to the level of the present day petty bourgeoisie, will thereby itself be ennobled.14

The same applies, incidentally, to societies in transition between capitalism and socialism. One can discuss whether Stakhanovism and the spread of piecework, so sharply condemned by Marx in Das Kapital, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were necessary means of increasing labour productivity in those countries (we do not believe so; but this is not the place here to prove that in detail).15 But that in the long run they undermined solidarity, sense of belonging, self-confidence, class consciousness and especially socialist consciousness of the working class, and that they were and are opposed by the most conscious elements of that class, both theoretically and practically, is undeniable. Consequently, in the long run, such means are contrary to human (proletarian) emancipation, and to socialist (communist, proletarian) morality.

And even if there will be inevitable compromises of fundamental principles (including ethical principles) – inevitable in the sense that the negative consequences of the compromise are less damaging than the catastrophe prevented by the compromise – it is the political and therefore the moral duty of the Marxist not to gloss over such negative consequences. The duty of Marxists is to state them openly, honestly and to propose all necessary measures that can neutralize, at least in part, the negative effects of the compromise. It is not such warnings that ‘discourage’ the working masses, it is obfuscation of the truth that leads to discouragement.

The great, honest revolutionary Lenin understood this excellently – unlike his epigones. He attempted to put this understanding into practice. Listen to him – we would urge today’s faithful followers of Moscow, Peking and Tirana – and learn from him when he talks about the (modest) wage differentials introduced, against communist principles, in Soviet Russia in the year 1918.

Now we have to resort to the old bourgeois method and to agree to pay a very high price for the ‘services’ of the top bourgeois experts. All those who are familiar with the subject appreciate this, but not all ponder over the significance of this measure being adopted by the proletarian state. Clearly, this measure is a compromise, a departure from the principles of the Paris Commune and of every proletarian power, which call for the reduction of all salaries to the level of the wages of the average worker, which urge that careerism be fought not merely in words, but in deeds.

Moreover, it is clear that this measure […] is also a step backward on the part of our socialist Soviet state power, which from the very outset proclaimed and pursued the policy of reducing high salaries to the level of the wages of the average worker. […]
To conceal from the people the fact that the enlistment of bourgeois experts by means of extremely high salaries is a retreat from the principles of the Paris Commune would be sinking to the level of bourgeois politicians and deceiving the people. […]

It goes without saying that this question has another side to it. The corrupting influence of high salaries – both upon the Soviet authorities [...] and upon the mass of the workers – is indisputable. […]

If the class-conscious advanced workers and poor peasants manage with the aid of the Soviet institutions to organise, become disciplined, pull themselves together, create powerful labour discipline in the course of one year, then in a year’s time we shall throw off this ‘tribute’, which can be reduced even before that … in exact proportion to the successes we achieve in our workers’ and peasants’ labour discipline and organisation.16

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

Describing social phenomena that are much older (and will last much longer) than the capitalist mode of production, Lenin in his speech before the Third Congress of the Communist Youth dissected the problems of communist morality and defined the obstacles to be overcome on the road to the realization of the ethical values of communism:

The old society was based on the principle: rob or be robbed; work for others or make others work for you; be a slave-owner or a slave. Naturally, people brought up in such a society assimilate with their mother’s milk, one might say, the psychology, the habit, the concept which says: you are either a slave-owner or a slave, or else, a small owner, a petty employee, a petty official, or an intellectual – in short, a man who is concerned only with himself, and does not care a rap for anybody else.

If I work this plot of land, I do not care a rap for anybody else; if others starve, all the better, I shall get the more for my grain. If I have a job as a doctor, engineer, teacher, or clerk, I do not care a rap for anybody else. If I toady to and please the powers that be, I may be able to keep my job, and even get on in life….19

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

Finally, we might add, that in Engels’ classic summary in Anti-Dühring of the Marxist thesis regarding morality, the final passage reads as follows:

But nevertheless there is great deal which the three moral theories mentioned above have in common […]21 These moral theories represent three different stages of the same historical development, have therefore a common historical background, and for that reason alone they necessarily have much in common. […]

And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, no one will doubt. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life.22


A final objection remains to be answered: behind the alleged, but non-existent contradiction between objectively determined (‘over-determined’) moral rules and subjective moral-political options, is there not a real contradiction after all, namely that between positivist-scientific thinking on the one hand and (Hegel-inspired) speculative philosophy on the other? That would be the main contradiction within Marxism, at least as Professor Acton thinks to have discovered it.23 And not coincidentally, he is a professor of moral philosophy.

We leave aside here whether it is correct to call Hegel a ‘speculative philosopher’, or rather, whether the elements of Hegelian dialectic that live on in the materialist dialectic of Marx and Engels constitute a speculative element in distinction to the classical-scientific, trial-and-error method, which Marx and the Marxists apply primarily within social sciences. We also leave aside the interesting problem of the entanglement between individual motivations, the individual attitude towards socially predetermined moral rules, and the social position of the individual.24 We focus the question on its most basic core: is there a dualism in Marxism between scientific practice and political commitment, a dualism that can be summarized as a contradiction between strictly scientific, objective dissection of social reality in its movement, and the subjective intention to change that reality in a certain direction, for the realization of certain ends, as expressed in the famous eleventh proposition about Feuerbach? Is this not a contradiction between causality and teleology?

Our answer is: yes, such dualism exists. But it has nothing to do with speculative philosophy. Nor is it an absolute dualism, because the two practices stimulate each other and tend to merge together. But this merger is neither automatic nor inevitable.

Marxism constitutes a unity of two different historically determined social practices: a scientific practice and a emancipatory (liberating, socialist) practice. Both activities arose independently, have their own rules of determining (relative) success, correspond to their own internal logic, and have their own specific forms of social determination. Marx and Engels made a great attempt to unite them. The degree of success of this attempt can be judged only by practical results, i.e. the practical result of applying historical materialism to explaining the great social changes of the past, present and future on the one hand, and the practical result of the liberation struggle of the modern proletariat stimulated by Marxist theses on the other. In both fields, we are still in the midst of the current and of the struggle. We can therefore only draw up an interim balance sheet. History is far from having made a final judgement (or rather, it does not yet allow us to make a final judgement). Of course, ‘history’ never passes judgement. It only allows certain individuals and social groups to make such judgements with the material it provides.

But that these are indeed two different practices seems to us indisputable. Marx and Engels underlined that scientific activity is valuable only when it obeys its own laws and does not submit to any rules dictated by extra-scientific (even emancipatory) interests. In his Theorien über den Mehrwert, Marx wrote succinctly: When a man seeks to accommodate science to a viewpoint which is derived not from science itself (however erroneous it may be) but from outside, from alien, external interests, then I call him ‘base’.25

And, as if he could foresee the later sad degeneration of the bureaucratized mass workers' parties (primarily the Stalinist ones, but not only them!), Engels wrote the subsequent prophetic lines to his friends August Bebel and Karl Kautsky in the early 1890s:

In view of the attempt made by you people to forcibly prevent publication of the article, and your warnings to the Neue Zeit that, in the event of a recurrence, it, too, might be taken over and subjected to censorship by the party, the latter’s appropriation of your entire press cannot but appear to me in a singular light.26 In what respect do you differ from Puttkamer if you introduce an Anti-Socialist Law into your own ranks? So far as I myself am concerned, it doesn’t signify; no party in any country can impose silence upon me once I have made up my mind to speak. But all the same I would suggest you consider whether you would not do well to show yourselves slightly less touchy and, in your actions, slightly less – Prussian. Youthe partyneed socialist science and this cannot exist without freedom to develop.27

That voices should have been raised in the parliamentary group demanding that the Neue Zeit be subject to censorship is truly delectable. Is the spectre of the parliamentary group’s dictatorship at the time of the Anti-Socialist Law [...] still at large or is it a harking back to the sometime close-knit organisation of von Schweitzer?28 […]
After the liberation of German socialist science from Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law, what more brilliant idea than to subject it to a new Anti-Socialist Law to be thought up and implemented by the officials of the Social-Democratic Party.29

And earlier:

And it is also necessary that people finally stop treating Party functionaries – their own servants – with the eternal kid gloves and standing most obediently instead of critically before them, as if they were infallible bureaucrats.30

But while Marx and Engels stressed the necessity of objective-scientific research that conformed only to the laws of science, throughout their lives they highlighted equally strongly the goal of human emancipation they pursued.31 The starting point of Marx’s political endeavour was to ‘overturn all conditions in which man is a degraded, enslaved, abandoned, despicable being.32

Throughout their lives Marx and Engels remained true to this commitment. We could substantiate this with dozens of quotations. Suffice it to quote three passages from their most important works. From the Communist Manifesto:

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.33

From the first volume of Das Kapital:

Fanatically bent on making value expand itself, he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake; he thus forces the development of the productive powers of society, and creates those material conditions, which alone can form the real basis of a higher form of society, a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle.34

From Anti-Dühring:

In making itself the master of all the means of production to use them in accordance with a social plan, society puts an end to the former subjection of men to their own means of production. It goes without saying that society cannot free itself unless every individual is freed.35

The connection of scientific practice (and the knowledge gained by it) with emancipatory striving makes scientific socialism – Marxism – more effective than utopian socialism or other doctrines of emancipation that we have known in history, including in the history of the modern labour movement. This emancipation struggle is now armed with an understanding of the conditions of its own development and of its possible success. It no longer relies solely or mainly on moral indignation.36 This understanding dissects the objective contradictions that tear apart society and the succession of crises that continue to undermine it. It dissects the social, economic and political forces that are developing in its womb and that are preparing the birth of a new society.

This understanding strengthens the emancipation struggle, stimulates most of all the gradual merging of the struggle of an existing social class, the modern proletariat, with the realization of socialist objectives. This in turn strengthens the class struggle of the proletariat, a class struggle that would have unfolded even if Marx and Engels had not lived, had not written anything, and if no one had developed a comparable theory. Conversely, the real class struggle of the real proletariat decisively stimulates the development of the social sciences. It is doubtful whether without this class struggle for example the theory of surplus value, not to mention the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat, would have been formulated in their developed forms.

But whoever talks about merging, presupposes the existence of two different social activities (processes) that can be connected. One can engage in social science without being a socialist. One can be a socialist without relying on a scientific dissection of society and a resulting prognosis about its ultimate fate. But one cannot be a Marxist, i.e. a proponent of scientific socialism, without linking the two activities.

In a famous controversy, before and after the First World War, Rudolf Hilferding and Karl Korsch raised this issue and both gave a false answer, theoretically and practically.37 According to Hilferding, one can be a Marxist – he limits Marxism to recognizing the laws of development of the capitalist mode of production – without drawing any political conclusions from it. In the light of the work of Marx and Engels as a whole, we respond that this is not so. One may then be a good historian, sociologist and economist, but not a Marxist. Then one is, to paraphrase Marx’s letter to Meyer quoted above, from a moral point of view ‘an ox’ (ein Ochse). A Marxist is never a moral ox, i.e. an inhuman who relates inhumanly to inhuman relations.

Conversely, Karl Korsch believed that if the modern proletariat should prove itself incapable of founding a socialist society, with it the whole of Marxist science (rather, the social sciences starting from Marxist hypotheses) would collapse. This is also not correct.

Should practical experience, contrary to all the data of the last 200 years of socio-economic and political history, prove in the end that the establishment of a classless society is a utopia and not a practically attainable goal, Marxists should by no means draw the consequence of condemning themselves and others to resignation, to submission or withdrawal into the private sphere. Marxists never capitulate to degrading conditions, because such an attitude is incompatible with elementary human dignity and thus also to their own elementary dignity.38 In this extreme case – which we do not believe will materialize, which we only sketch as an extreme borderline case to clarify the issue – a Marxist would be faced with a dual task. One task would be providing a scientific explanation for the degeneration of capitalism into a barbaric society rather than its replacement by a classless, socialist society, and another task would be to engage in the defensive struggle of the oppressed slaves against their oppressors.39

The assertion of anti-Marxists like Professor Tucker,40 incidentally similar to that of the Althusser school and of Stalinist dogmatists, that Marx was not motivated by feelings of social justice, i.e. by moral indignation,41 does not hold up when we consider the whole of his work, including his mature work. Nor does it make sense, as Maximilien Rubel attempted to do, to reduce Marx’s entire motivation to a moral one.42 Only when we start from the dual motivation of Marx and Engels as at the same time scholars and unwavering fighters for the emancipation of the proletariat and of all humanity can we understand and assess the whole of their work.

Then we can also understand what constitutes the historical background of their specific attitude towards the problem of ‘double morality’: not an incongruous connection between ‘positivist science’ and ‘speculative philosophy’, but a mutually strengthening connection between the attempt to understand reality and the attempt to change it in a certain sense, between scientific research and emancipatory striving. And this emancipatory striving does not answer exclusively, not even primarily, to an individual motivation but to a real movement of really existing social classes. Classes with which a given individual then identifies.

For this is surely the greatest obstacle that the cynical, sceptical or disenchanted opponents of Marxism encounter. When they claim that ‘history proves that there has always been injustice and inequality among people’, they forget that history also proves:

1. That resistance, rebellion and revolution against injustice, inequality, exploitation and oppression also run like a red thread throughout history (that we, today’s revolutionary socialists, are following in the footsteps of millions and tens of millions, who have been fighting along such lines for thousands of years).

2. That such resistance, rebellions and revolutions, even if they have not yet led to full emancipation, have nevertheless produced considerable partial successes. Cannibalism, slavery, serfdom, child labour in mines, or the 12- to 16-hour working day no longer exist today as dominant social institutions, whereas they existed for centuries, if not for thousands of years. Those who do not accept that this represents gigantic social progress, progress conquered by the emancipation struggle of the exploited and oppressed, must then conclude that they are indifferent whether they themselves, their families and friends, are eaten or sold as slaves. We have yet to meet anyone who dares to consistently extend their pessimism and misanthropy up to and including such conclusions.43

3. That this resistance is grounded anthropologically, and that nothing or no one, neither violence nor corruption nor manipulation, can succeed in suppressing that spark of rebellion in humanity.

4. That, therefore, there is at least a chance that the wage system, the capital relation, the market economy, alienated labour, the sovereign nation, classes and the state as oppressive institutions can disappear, as well as cannibalism, slavery and serfdom. Thus the greatest crises of today (Third World hunger, economic crises, political dictatorships, environmental pollution, growing violence and danger of nuclear war) can be resolved after all.

As long as these four lessons, drawn from historical experience, cannot be refuted, the unity of scientific enquiry and emancipation on which Marxism rests, and its specific form of applying the ‘double standard’ to eliminate the ‘double standard’ has no utopian character.


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 [].

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 a 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.

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 [].

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 [].

19 Lenin, 1920, The Tasks of the Youth Leagues []. 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.

21 Engels refers here to the views on morality of the feudal (and semi-feudal) nobility, the bourgeoisie and the working class, respectively.

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.

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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