Review of Bob Avakian's We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality

Bob Avakian is the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. This is my review of his two-part essay on morality which was published as a series of 14 articles in The Revolutionary Worker (#s 841-856) from January 28 to May 12, 1996. These articles were later published under the title Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones (Banner Press, P.O. Box 21195, New York, NY 10129, paperback, $8.00). They are also available on the Internet at: Morality Series

The draft version I have been given consists of two parts, the first focusing on William Bennett's book Virtues, and the second on the liberal Christian, Jim Wallis. I don't know if there are additional parts planned, but the manuscript as it now exists makes a nice integral whole, comparing and contrasting communist morality with conservative and liberal Christian morality. My overall feeling about the work is that it is extremely good, and that it addresses many of the hang-ups among the masses in a very convincing way. It is one of the most powerful pieces of writing from Bob Avakian that I have seen. As soon as it is published, I intend to give copies to several people whose whole outlook will be seriously challenged by this pamphlet/book.

One of the work's great strengths is that it is addressed to the masses; it is not a case of "preaching to the already converted", which characterizes a lot of revolutionary writing (including a certain amount in the RW unfortunately). One illustration of this is that the book does not shrink from discussing again the so-called "collapse of communism" and the phony socialism of the revisionist Soviet Union. While this is very old news to us Maoists, I have found that it is impossible to talk to the masses about any aspect of communism without their raising the objection, "But communism has failed..." We just have to get used to the fact that this view has been drummed into their heads, and for a whole long period ahead (probably until there is some genuine socialist society for us to point to) this is going to be one of the topics we need to constantly address.

A like point could be made about the question of "human nature"; it is virtually impossible to talk to the masses about communism for any length of time without that topic coming up, and I am glad to see that Avakian connected it up with ethics.

Similarly, to an ivory tower philosopher at some university, it might seem that Marxist-Leninist ethics can and should be presented more abstractly, and especially without such a focus on its contrast to Christian ethics. There may in fact be a secondary place for more theoretical expositions of that type; or at least that's my excuse for working on such a manuscript for a number of years. But while most professional philosophers in English speaking countries have long abandoned Christianity and religious ethics, the same cannot be said of the broad masses. That is why it is so important to show the contradictions and hypocrisies of Christian ethics along with presenting communist ethics.

The critical commentary below goes on at considerable length, but most of that is to present the background for a few small improvements I think should be made to the draft. These changes would probably amount to just a few sentences here and there, and even if no changes are made, I still think it is a very good and valuable work.

The Importance of Interests in Ethics

The first issue is the concept of "interests" in ethics. This concept cannot be stressed too much; it is in fact the key to understanding what ethics is all about (and politics as well!). Specifically, morality is a matter of group interests, and in class society, class interests. That's really all there is to it! But there are two approaches you can take here: First, the "anti-morality" standpoint of Marx and Engels in their early writings, such as The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto, which says in effect "Enough of all this ranting about morality! Instead, let's drop this mythologized, ideologicized language and get down and talk about what really lies behind it: class interests." And then there is the alternative approach of Engels in Anti-Dühring and of Lenin in his great 1920 speech, The Tasks of the Youth Leagues, which says that there is in fact a socialist/communist morality, which is very different from bourgeois morality—though both of them are based on their respective sets of class interests. I take this second approach, recognizing that we can't really dispense with all talk of morality, good & bad, better & worse, right & wrong, etc., but that we need constantly to explicate it, or demythologize it. We can't dispense completely with moral terminology both because the masses are too "caught up" in it, and because, more fundamentally, it is integrated too deeply into our languages and thought processes. But often we can skip the moral terminology, and proceed directly to the talk of class interests. And when we do use the language of morality, we should try—as consistently as possible—to go further and explicate that language in terms of whose interests are at stake; i.e., we should further explicate things in terms of class interests.

For the most part, Avakian does do this in his draft. He says explicitly, for example, that "even in dealing with the enemy, it is necessary to act in accordance with the fundamental interests of the people, and to be guided by the communist principles and morality that represent the highest expression of those fundamental interests." [p. 26 of Part II] But despite such excellent comments, I don't think that Avakian has fully communicated the point that morality is essentially a matter of class interests, nor the feeling that moral language tends to obscure the class interests at issue, which is often the reason that moral language is resorted to in the first place by bourgeois ideologists. People do have to learn to recognize that there tends to be something fishy about moralizing; they do have to learn to translate moral language into the clarifying language of class interests.

The "4 Alls" as the Basis of Communist Morality

One critical place where I thought more emphasis should be put on class interests was with the discussion of the "4 Alls" as the basis of communist morality [p. 22 of Part II]. Actually there are two difficulties with this formulation. First of all, things like the "4 Alls" are kind of hard to remember. I'll wager that half of the RCP members, even after reading Avakian's draft, could not correctly name all four. ("The 4 Alls... Ah, let me think. Oh, yes—the 4 Alls of revolution... Well, let's see; there's getting rid of classes, that's first. And, uh, getting rid of the relations of production that give rise to classes... And, let's see... Oh, yes—changing the ideas that arise on the basis of these classes. The fourth one,... I don't know; I forget...") Even if Party members can rattle them off, I guarantee that many of the masses will have a hard time remembering (and maybe even understanding) them, at least at first. (A 1994 Gallup poll showed that very few Christians, even among the most convinced and proselytizing, could list the 10 commandments. Of course, most Christians didn't know much of anything else about the doctrine they professed to believe in either.) Phrases like "the relations of production" seem transparently simple to someone who understands even just a bit of Marxist political economy, but they are far from obvious to the broad masses who have no familiarity whatsoever with this topic.

The problem with saying that the "4 Alls" are the basis of communist morality is that it skips a step. The essence of communist morality is making revolution, and the first point for everybody to fix in their mind is that for us a thing is right and just if and only if it advances the revolution, and the whole world towards communism. Then we can go further and explicate what we mean by revolution in terms of the "4 Alls", and proceed to deeper explanations from there.

In his speech to the Youth Leagues, Lenin said that "Our morality stems from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat" and "Communist morality is based on the struggle for the consolidation and completion of communism." However, the later phrase sounds most appropriate to the situation well after the seizure of power (when socialism is well along the way toward being transformed into communism), and the former phrase can, unfortunately, be misconstrued by those who favor class struggle of the revisionist variety, but who shrink from revolutionary class struggle. So I think the word to emphasize first in talking about the central thrust of communist morality is simply revolution.

However, whether you say the basic thrust of communist morality is the "4 Alls" or revolution, you are immediately up against objections like: "Why these 4 things? Why not some other 4? Or 2? Or 5?" or "Why revolution? Why not something else, like universal brotherhood? Or the categorical imperative?" And here is where you have to immediately come back to the interests of the people and how only revolution can serve those interests. This is simply a fact of the present situation, that peoples' true interests can only be satisfied through revolution. If some people do not accept this as a fact, then we have to try to provide them with the mountain of evidence that convinced us.

So I think the stuff about the "4 Alls" should be displaced from its primary position as the "basis" of communist morality, and relegated to a secondary role of explaining what is involved in communist revolution.

The "Central Problem" of Marxist-Leninist Ethics

There is one little puzzle which often serves as a road block for people considering communist morality, and which is sometimes called the "central problem" of Marxist-Leninist ethics by bourgeois philosophers. (It is not just anti-Marxist philosophers who raise this point however; I've heard it from the masses as well.) The gist of it goes like this: "You say each class has its own morality, its own ideas of what is right and wrong, and that such questions can only be answered in terms of class moralities. But then you say that communist morality is better than bourgeois morality, a moral judgment which can only be made convincingly from outside any specific class morality. (After all, the bourgeoisie can claim that their morality is "better" too.) Obviously you haven't thought out your position very well." This little conundrum can be fairly easily dealt with, but I have yet to see any fully satisfactory resolution of it in print.

In Anti-Dühring, for example, Engels attempts to resolve the problem this way (after introducing the three main European moralities of the age, Christian-feudal, bourgeois, and proletarian):

Which [morality], then, is the true one? Not one of them, in the sense of absolute finality; but certainly that morality which contains the most elements promising permanence, which, in the present, represents the overthrow of the present, represents the future, and therefore the proletarian morality. [Peking, 1976, p. 117]

There are really two, somewhat incompatible, principles here: 1) That morality is best which has the largest number of lasting elements, and 2) That morality is best which represents the future. Note first that both these ethical principles are extra-class; that is, neither really has a class basis. And in fact it is completely true that no principle for choosing among class moralities can be class based. If it was, it would be begging the question. Note secondly, that no real argument is given for either of these two principles. Why in fact should we accept them? How do we know that some other principle is not superior? Actually, I can't accept either principle as it stands, though I recognize that there is an element of truth to each.

Consider the first principle, that the best morality today is the one which has the largest number of lasting elements. If that were really true then the best morality today would already be the morality appropriate in the future. But the best morality today (proletarian revolutionary morality) is not in fact identical to the morality of the communist society of the future. To mention just one example, one that Avakian also alludes to, I am sure that in communist society, capital punishment will not exist; it would be wrong. But as Avakian correctly notes, the masses will not be able to advance to that situation unless some of the worst bourgeois representatives are executed in the course of the revolution. Once you recognize that present-day proletarian morality is not identical to the morality of communist society of the future, you are already implicitly granting that Engels' first principle cannot be fully correct. If it were, we would have to try to do the impossible—implement today a form of morality appropriate to the future.

Engels' other principle isn't completely correct either; the best morality is not necessarily the one that "represents the future". The future is not always preferable to the past; Nazi Germany was not preferable to the Germany of Engels' day. And bad as the bourgeois morality of Engels' day was, Nazi "morality" was clearly worse. At this point in history, it is not even possible to be absolutely certain that humanity has a long-term future. Until capitalism is completely overthrown the serious possibility remains that it will destroy humanity completely, quite possibly in some future nuclear Armageddon, or perhaps through some environmental catastrophe. It is no longer possible to have the unqualified long-term optimism that Marx and Engels showed. The reality of today is much more desperate (even with the temporary respite due to the collapse of one of the two major imperialist superpowers)—which makes proletarian revolution all the more necessary and urgent.

Lenin suggested Engels' approach when he said: "Morality serves the purpose of helping human society rise to a higher level and rid itself of the exploitation of labour." [LCW 31:294] This of course is true, but it apparently fails as a principle for choosing among class moralities. The reason is simple: saying one form of society (communism) is "higher" or better than another form (bourgeois) seems to just be expressing a class attitude of the revolutionary proletariat, and not an extra-class judgment.

So what then is the answer? On what basis can we choose among class moralities? We can turn to Marx & Engels for a hint. In The Holy Family, they remark (in pointing out the limits of the great French materialist philosophers of the Enlightenment) that "If correctly understood interest is the principle of all morality, man's private interest must be made to coincide with the interest of humanity." Carrying this idea a step further, in class society, the interests of one class must be made to coincide with that of humanity as a whole. Fortunately, this can in fact be done: any immediate selfish interests of the proletariat (yes, there are some) must be discarded, and the resulting long-term, true interests of the proletariat then do coincide with that of humanity. Lenin once remarked (I forget where) that even the interests of the working class must give way whenever they really come in conflict with that of humanity as a whole. The class interests, and thus the morality, of the proletariat, properly understood, do in fact represent the interests of humanity. Of all the classes and strata that exist today, only the revolutionary proletariat seeks to abolish all classes, including itself, and restore the harmony of interests among humanity that is necessary for there to be a single human morality. That's why proletarian morality is better than any other class morality.

Although many well-intentioned people imagine otherwise, in class society the interests of humanity can only be championed via the interests of a class, the one class whose interests can be made to coincide with those of humanity as a whole, and that is the revolutionary proletariat.

The key concept in resolving this conundrum of choosing among class moralities is once again that of interests, but now the interests of humanity as a whole. As I said before, it is impossible to overemphasize the importance of the concept of interests in ethics. But some Marxists may still be a bit uncomfortable with my resolution of the conundrum. Lenin insists, in The Tasks of the Youth Leagues, that "We reject any morality based on extra-human and extra-class concepts." [LCW 31:291] But here I am using an extra-class principle (though not an extra-human one) to decide among class moralities, and even insisting that only an extra-class principle can accomplish this—if the reasoning is not to be circular.

I have found that it is helpful to recall the general overall history of human morality at this point. Morality first arose in primitive-communal society where there were no classes, and at that time it was based on the common, collective interests of the whole group (tribe or whatever). Class moralities arose later when, with the advent of slavery, most of those common, collective interests ceased to exist. When common interests were split asunder, morality had of necessity to be split asunder as well. Only when humanity completely regains all these common, collective interests will it be possible to once again have a unified human morality. And this is only possible if one single class gains total ascendancy and transforms itself, along with the remnants of all other classes, into a unified classless humanity. No exploiting class, of any variety, can possibly do this, because obviously every exploiting class needs another class to exploit. No exploiting class wants for one minute to get rid of social classes! Only the modern exploited class, the proletariat, can accomplish this, because only the proletariat truly has an overriding interest in getting rid of all classes, transforming even itself.

Moreover, it is useful to think about what must have happened when the common, collective interests of primitive-communal society were split. Did this mean that humanity then had no common interests whatsoever? No, the split-up was not that extreme. When slavery arose, the once common interest in seeing everyone in the group prosper no longer existed; the slave owner no longer gave a damn about whether his slaves prospered; his only concern for his slaves was that they remain healthy enough to work hard for him. The slaves, in turn, had no interest in seeing the slave owner prosper; their interests lay more in seeing him dead. But both the slave owner and the slaves did have a residue of some common interests. Both had at least some common interest in the continued health of the slaves, though for drastically different reasons. As another example, both had an interest in the continuation of humanity as a species.

When we say that in class society there must be separate class moralities because there are basically incompatible sets of class interests, we are not denying that there is also a slight residue of abstract universal (above-class) human interests common to all classes. It is because such a residue of abstract universal interests still exists that we can talk about such things as the "common elements" in various class moralities (as Engels does). Thus all class moralities say that murder is wrong in the abstract; but slave owners did not believe that killing a slave was "murder" or morally wrong, nor did any enlightened slave think that killing a slave owner was murder or wrong. Similarly, the modern bourgeoisie does not really believe that killing rebellious workers in the home country is wrong, nor do they view it as wrong to kill rebellious people of any class in foreign countries under their thumb. And the revolutionary proletariat does not view it as wrong to kill some of those bastards if that is what it takes to get rid of their rule. In short, the prohibition against murder is a "common element" of the two hostile class moralities only if expressed in the abstract, and not when you get down to the specific content involved. So what good then is this abstract residue of common interests, and common morality, that all classes can agree on? It is of no use whatsoever in practice, and that is why there needs to be separate class moralities. The abstract residue of universal human interests, and a universal human morality, has in fact only one valid use—namely, in deciding which of the various competing class moralities is the best, or in other words, which class morality comes closest to the abstract ideal now (here is the echo of Engels' view), and much more importantly, which can eventually lead to a universal merging of all the most basic interests of everyone, with a new universal human morality erected on that base (here is the echo of Lenin's view).

My reason for going into all this at such length is that I would like to see Avakian more directly address this "central problem" of Marxist-Leninist ethics, which I believe really does prove an insurmountable obstacle for many who might otherwise accept our point of view. Moreover, the couple hints about his possible stand on this issue that I found in his draft seem to suggest Engels' approach, which as I indicated above, is not quite adequate. I like Avakian's comment on page 22 of part II, that we are trying to "transform objective reality in a direction that best serves the interests of humanity," and it is because only proletarian morality is really attempting to do this that it is superior to other class moralities. Even more to the point is Avakian's comment that: "Thus, while communist morality—like all morality—is not transcendental, in the sense of being independent of any historical and social basis and being applicable in any era, it does have the quality of universality precisely for this era: it corresponds to the leap that humanity must make in this era and to the means for making that leap." [Pages 27-28 of Part II] But, again, I think this sort of remark by itself will not satisfy people who want an explanation for why proletarian morality is better than that of other classes. It needs to be explained more.

Ends and Means

I liked Avakian's insistence that there is a unity of ends and means in communist morality (or at least that there certainly should be!). I don't really think there is much of a disunity of ends and means in bourgeois morality either, although I don't particularly object to his claiming so. (It amounts to short-hand for the more complex truth.) The never-stated central goal of bourgeois morality is to maintain their rule and keep the masses down, and if their means were somehow to conflict with that goal it would actually be a good thing (from our point of view), not a bad thing. To the extent that any class does not have a unity of ends and means, that class is not acting in the most rational fashion in advancing its own interests. The apparent discrepancy between ends and means in Christian or other forms of bourgeois morality, may at various times seem less obvious, or more obvious, because they must necessarily often hide their true ends from the masses.

But in another way of looking at things, all moralities must necessarily have "conflicts" between ends and means. (The world is dialectical; sometimes in order to go one way, you must first take a step in an opposite direction to get around the obstacles.) We oppose wars (like the Vietnam War), and yet we advocate revolutionary warfare against the bourgeoisie. There is no inconsistency here from the point of view of advancing the interests of the people, but if you talk about war in the abstract, yes, we do have different, "conflicting" views about war—sometimes we oppose it, sometimes we advocate it, depending upon the situation (type of war). This is why just denying any conflicts between communist ends and means (or the ends and means of any other class for that matter) is in fact a bit disingenuous.

I really don't know myself if I want Avakian to change anything in his draft on this topic of ends and means. But I do feel just a bit dissatisfied with it, and I think many among the masses may also be a bit dissatisfied and even skeptical. Perhaps it would be better to face up to the fact that sometimes you have to do disagreeable things to achieve your moral goals, and that it is by no means always wrong to do so. Often it is in fact morally mandatory, if the sum of the ends and means is a net positive good, and there is no better means available.

In a longer essay, the topic of "expediency" would also have to be discussed, since bourgeois ideologists always accuse Marxist-Leninist ethics of glorifying expediency. (And in fact there are really two senses of 'expediency'—one positive, which any rational person tries to follow, and one negative.)

Human Morality As Species-Based

Although I don't want to make a big issue of it, Avakian's comment [p. 26 of Part II] that human beings "cannot help but... approach everything from the vantage point of their species" is not precisely correct. With regard to morality, and vis-a-vis all present animals on the planet earth, this is in effect true—but only because none of these animals are sufficiently like humans. If and when humans come in contact with other sentient beings, whether extra-terrestials, or androids of our own construction, our morality must include them too. In other words, it is a matter of sentience (and perhaps other essential characteristics of our species), and not just a matter of species.

Marxist Materialism and Mind

On p. 30 of Part II, Avakian repeats the familiar Marxist statement that "the mind itself and its thought processes are particular forms of matter in motion". Although this way of putting things is traditional, and can be interpreted in a correct way, it tends to sound too much like naive mechanical materialism these days. A better way to put it is that mind and mental phenomena, like thoughts, have a physical basis. Now that computers exist, the best way to understand mind is to liken it to computer software: Mind is to brain as software is to hardware. It is of course true that software, like mind, has a physical basis (usually in the form of patterns of magnetic domains on hard disks, or other magnetic media), but the whole point of making the distinction between software and hardware, and the older distinction between mind and brain, is to allow us to look at the whole computing system (or the whole person) in a different, functional sort of way, instead of focusing on the hardware (or physical body). The dialectical materialist view of mind, these days, should be considered a form of materialist functionalism. (I wrote an essay on this that goes into the issue in depth, if anyone is interested.)

Some Minor Typos

And finally, I spotted a few minor typos in Avakian's draft.

—Scott H.
   1/23/96 (With some minor editing on 7/3/98)

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