Fitting Means & Ends

— Nancy Holmstrom

MARX AND ENGELS  liked to characterize their approach to socialism as “scientific” in contrast to others they dismissed as “utopian,” using the phrases “the materialist conception of history,”(1) or “historical materialism” to describe the scientific approach to understanding history and society on which they based both their theorizing and practical politics. This emphasis on the scientific character of their commitment to socialism, combined with their many scathing criticisms of socialists’ appeals to ethics and morality, have led some socialists to wonder whether historical materialism needs an ethics.

Indeed some commentators insist that historical materialism does not have an ethics; nor, they claim, does it need one. I think this interpretation is incorrect and rests on an overly rigid and outmoded contrast between science and ethics. Historical materialism, the Marxist world view, has an ethics implicit in it, which it needs for many political reasons. The core idea of this ethics is captured by Marx’s slogan for the First International Workingmen’s Association: “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.”

Historical materialism does not need an ethics in the sense the term “ethics” is used in academic philosophy: an explanation of what is right/wrong, good/bad in terms of a unified abstract universal theory, the best known being Utilitarianism (“right is what produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number”) or Kant’s Categorical Imperative (“Will only those acts that you can universalize”).

Whether there is an adequate theory of this abstract, universal kind is a question we can leave to academic philosophers. Whether there might be a role for such theories is debated by Marxist philosophers, but it would be a subsidiary role at best. As Marx said in his XIth “Thesis on Feuerbach,” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world…; the point, however, is to change it.” This famous statement of Marx’s — along with another of his “Theses on Feuerbach” — is crucial to what I believe is a correct understanding of historical materialism.

In the IIIrd “Thesis on Feuerbach,” Marx criticizes what he calls “the materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing and therefore changed men are the products of changed circumstances and upbringing,” for omitting the fact that “it is men who change circumstances, and that the educator himself needs educating.” Putting human activity together with changing circumstances, he says, gives us revolutionary practice.

These theses make clear that Marx did not intend historical materialism to be a determinist theory about how societies work and how history would unfold that was independent of human agency, dependent on technology, for example. Although some of Marx’s language undoubtedly lends itself to this deterministic picture, it is inconsistent with the bulk of Marx’s and Engels’ writings and with their commitments to revolutionary activism.

Certain material and technological conditions are absolutely necessary for capitalism, and others for socialism, (without these conditions, he says in The German Ideology, socialism is impossible and “the same filthy business” would occur), but these conditions are far from sufficient.(2)

Historical materialism is a method for understanding how societies work that focuses on their class dynamics, and about how and why these class dynamics lead to historical change. But “class dynamics” cannot be understood apart from human  beings in struggle. It is we, human beings, who make history, though as Marx and Engels stress, we do not get to choose the circumstances in which we do it.(3)

What Would Be Better?

To say that “human beings make history” or that “the point is to change the way the world is,” invites the questions: Why? What’s wrong with the way things are? How should we change it? What means should we use? And what should we change it to? What would be better? And why?

Clearly these questions can only be answered in terms of some kind of moral principles or values, but this does not require a full blown ethical theory. Human beings act not as automata, but as conscious beings who have to make choices. If they are in struggle, they have already made some big choices, but the necessity for choice is continual; they have to make decisions about what they are aiming for and what means they should use to achieve them.

Some would say that the ends justify the means, and some have imputed that idea to Marxists, but this is a dangerous idea that can lead to justifying horrendous acts like the United States’ use of torture today in the name of fighting terrorism. A better way of understanding the relationship between means and ends, and one that is more consistent with Marxism, is that the means (the methods of waging the struggle) determine the ends (the outcome).

If our objective, then,  is a society in which “the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all” as Marx says in The Communist Manifesto, this cannot be achieved by authoritarian methods that destroy human dignity. If self-emancipation is the goal, it must be the means as well. To paraphrase the great American socialist Eugene Victor Debs, if a savior can lead you into the promised land, he can lead you back out again too.

Someone might object that it does not matter why we should try to change society, because oppressed and exploited people simply will protest and rebel against their lot in life and they don’t  need moral justifications to do it. Unfortunately that is not necessarily so. Aside from the fact that they may simply be too beaten down to revolt, this response underestimates the role of ideas in keeping oppressed people oppressed.

Ideas that tell people that they are unworthy, that this is ordained by God or some other authority as the right and best way — or as the only way — can keep them from trying to change things. On the other hand, if oppressed people believe that they are worthy, that their lot in life is wrong, unjust, outrageous — and if they get a glimpse of what a better world would be like — these ideas can be powerful motivators to the kind of courageous action that is necessary for radical social change. Consider Marx’s comment about the importance of a slave’s recognition that he cannot (Marx’s word) be the property of another.

Moral Convictions

Marx clearly had passionately held moral convictions. This can be seen from the most cursory reading of his work, including Capital, the most mature and scientific of his works which some commentators see as dropping the more humanistic elements of his early works.

Whether Marx’s moral convictions can be put together into a single coherent ethical theory, and whether particular moral concepts like “justice” and “injustice” apply to his judgments, is another question that has been debated by philosophers but that can be safely ignored here.(4) Though Marx was often very disparaging of ethical theories in the abstract, the pages of Capital are filled with moral outrage at the exploitation and alienation he viewed as inherent in capitalism.

He referred repeatedly to the “domination” of capital over labor, to the “enslavement” of labor power, the “despotism” of the labor process, of machinery being put to “a wrong use,” reducing the worker to “a fragment of a man,” “a crippled monstrosity.” He likened capital to a vampire sucking the lifeblood of workers, a “werewolf hungry for surplus value,” and he described surplus value (the source of profit in capitalism) as the “tribute” that capitalists extract from the working class.

Many more examples could be offered to show that the interrelated evils of capitalism in Marx’s eyes were domination, exploitation, alienation. It is these very features of capitalism that have motivated people to rebel against it from the beginning. But rebel against it in favor of what?

Moral issues inevitably arise here too. Marx referred to socialism as a higher form of society and the relations between the sexes and the form of the family that would exist in socialism as higher forms — obviously moral judgments. But as to just what socialism would look like, Marx said less of a positive nature.

The closest he came to a description of the political features of a socialist society is his admiring account of the Paris Commune of 1871, saying in effect: critics ask what a workers government would look like, well here it is. The working class had taken over Paris, and established a workers’ democracy; representatives were paid the average of the people they represented and were subject to immediate recall.

Marx made clear that he did not think of socialism or communism as simply any society that replaced capitalism with a collective form of ownership, as many so-called socialists have defined it. Consider Marx’s scathing comments in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts on what he called crude communism, which he describes as a “regression” of the worker to the “unnatural simplicity of the poor and undemanding man who has not only failed to transcend private property, but hasn’t even reached it,” where envy levels everyone down, and where the individual capitalist is replaced by “the community as universal capitalist.”

The key point is that the evils of capitalism, most basically exploitation, while inherent in capitalism, are not unique to it, nor to slavery or feudalism. These evils are endemic, Marx says in Capital, to any society in which  workers do not control the means of production; it is simply the mode of exploitation that changes.(5)

Therefore it is crucial for Marxists not just to be against capitalism, but to be clear about why capitalism is wrong, what are its core defects from a moral point of view, and what makes socialism a “higher” form. For Marx, the answer rests on the core value of freedom, self-emancipation. These values presume a certain conception of human nature — not one fixed by biology but residing in the unique capacity of human beings for labor that is conscious and free of necessity.(6)

Choosing Our Allies

But anti-capitalist, revolutionary change can go in many directions. Holding on to the core values of historical materialism can help sort through the choices that radical activists and their supporters have to make at every historical juncture.

Today, some on the left who rightly oppose the imperialist policies of the United States and Israel in the Mideast think that we must support Hezbollah — just because it is anti- imperialist, or because  being a religious as well as a political movement makes Hezbollah’s role something like the liberation theology that played a progressive role in Latin America in the 1970s and ‘80s. The politics of Hezbollah, however, are not progressive but reactionary, anti-semitic, and retrograde with regard to gender.

More positive anti-imperialist movements exist in many parts of Latin America, from Venezuela, to Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil. These movements, and others taking place in the midst of the capitalist world order, face difficult strategic choices some of which are moral in nature. To what extent should they compromise with capitalist interests at the expense of the oppressed? Is there a legitimate role for violence in the process of radical social change?

Under what conditions, if ever, is it all right to sacrifice civil liberties and freedom of the press for security of the revolutionary process? Is rule by one party justified? Although revolutionary socialists will undoubtedly have to make compromises and will probably make mistakes, being clear that the core value of Marx’s socialism is self-emancipation is essential to limiting the mistakes.

Ethics Versus Materialism?

The system that existed in the Soviet Union and its satellites has largely faded into history, but is worth some discussion because it provides an all-too-relevant illustration of my thesis. As Daniel Singer has said, one of the most tragic legacies of these dictatorial exploitative regimes that called themselves socialist is to have destroyed the very concept of socialism in the minds of millions of people.

Defenders of capitalism were happy to endorse them as models of socialism, but what explains why so many otherwise good people who saw clearly the evils of capitalism denied or justified the horrors of these societies?

Part of the answer could be that they interpreted historical materialism wrongly, either as  a technological determinist theory, as making the development and collectivization of the productive forces not only necessary for socialism, but sufficient; or that they believed that historical materialism did not require any moral principles; or an overemphasis on material well being, leaving out entirely the Marxist value of freedom and self-emancipation. Whether or not these misunderstandings of Marxism explain their apologies, it is clear that these ideas could help to rationalize it for them.(7)

Some socialists who accept the need for an ethics draw different implications from the Soviet experience that are relevant to our question. They separate the ethics from historical materialism, interpreting historical materialism as a purely scientific theory, and say that the predictions based on it that have been disproven by history. The rise of the Soviet Union, its demise and its replacement by capitalism, shows that historical materialism is false. What is left they say is the ethical core of socialism with its critique of capitalism. This is the view of philosopher Jerry Cohen.(8)

I disagree. I do not see historical materialism as offering a simple neat set of predictions that have been disproven. While Marx did not predict the rise and fall of the Soviet system, he said repeatedly that without the necessary conditions, socialism was impossible; “the same old crap,” he said, would return. Rather than the Soviet experience having disproven Marx’s historical predictions, on the contrary, I think that the failure to build socialism in one country, not based on workers’ democracy, confirms Marx’s theory that this would be impossible.

It is also even clearer today than in Marx’s day that the internal contradictions of capitalism, particularly its need for growth, lead to human misery on such a vast scale that the very survival of humankind has now been put into question. In Rosa Luxemburg’s famous phrase, the choice facing us today is “socialism or barbarism.”

The rise and fall of Soviet-style systems shows the need for socialists to put ethics in the foreground, but integrated with their analyses of the inherent failings of capitalism. As Daniel Singer said, in the 21st century socialists can’t expect anyone to take them seriously without a fuller idea — not a blueprint — but a project, a vision, of what kind of society we want.

This project has to start with the basis principles of freedom and self-emancipation and with the practical ethical questions of how to realize these values; what institutions will best realize and preserve these values, what means are morally legitimate to use? One general guideline as mentioned earlier is that instead of the ends justifying the means, we have to take seriously that the means determine the ends. This entails recognizing that while violence may be necessary, it should be as limited and specific as possible.

Those who defend capitalism, and those who defended Stalinism, both do so on a mixture of moral and factual understandings, many of which are mistaken. When we argue against those who claim that capitalism is best because it is most free and the only democratic system, we show that those very values are in fact not realized in capitalism, or only in a limited superficial way.

At its core, capitalism rests on the domination of the overwhelming majority by a small minority. And one of the worst things about this domination is that it is experienced as such, without being understood as such. Part of our job as socialists is to help people see through the illusions of capitalism, to understand that we are faced with this stark choice of socialism or barbarism, and to encourage a vision of self-emancipation as both means and end of revolutionary socialist practice, the only means of creating socialism and the essence of what socialism would be. This ethical vision is itself a key part of historical materialism.


  1. An earlier version of this article was presented at a panel of this title at the Left Forum 2006. Other panelists were Charles Mills, Bertell Ollman, John Pittman and Karsten Struhl. Thanks to David Finkel for thoughtful comment.
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  2. The German Ideology in Robert C. Tucker ed. The Marx-Engels Reader,1978,.161. See G. A. Cohen Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense, 1978, for a theoretically sophisticated defense of the deterministic interpretation. Excellent examples of what I take to be the correct interpretation are Michael Lowy’s The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx, 2005 and Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Democracy Against Capitalism, 1995.
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  3. See Engels’ Letters on Historical Materialism in Tucker.
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  4. Except to say that even if we interpret Marxism to include such abstract principles, they have to be understood as grounded in particular social/historical situations. As Trotsky discusses in Their Morals and Ours, it would be absurd to equate deception and violence used to enslave someone with a slave’s use of these means to frree himself. See  Norman Geras, “The Controversy about Marx and Justice,” in Literature of Revolution 1986 for the best summary of this debate.
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  5. Tucker, 364.
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  6. This is a controversial claim. But see Marx’s explicit discussion in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Tucker 76 et al, as well as many passages in The Grundrisse, Capital III Tucker 441; it is also implicit in the above critiques of capitalism’s effect on workers found in Capital I. For the bests survey of the debate among Marxists on this topic see Norman Geras Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend, 1983.
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  7. Another analysis is that defenders of these systems accepted the same moral values as the critics, but they simply did not accept the same factual descriptions of the societies. Charles W. Mills offers a fascinating account of the kinds of rationalizations that often went on in the minds of those who defended Stalin and Mao, which explain how they could be so blind. See “The Moral Epistemology of Stalinism,” in From Class to Race, 1998. And at bottom, of course, is the incredible emotional difficulty of giving up what one has devoted one’s life to, a factor that is probably more explanatory on a basic level than the intellectural ones discussed above.
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  8. See Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality, Cambridge, 1995.
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ATC 126, January-February 2007