The Ethics of Socialist Praxis

Tom Smith

IN ATC 29, Milt Fisk and Harry Brighouse consider the question of the proper ethics, and political forms, for socialism. Fisk, in the Leninist tradition, argues for an ethics of class-relativism. Once the working class takes power through a council state, it should use this power without any fixed principles with regard to individual or minority rights.

Brighouse, in the tradition of Rawls and Dworkin, argues for an ethics of abstract rights based upon a contractual model of society. Because non-economic, socio-cultural antagonism will always occur, some “minimal” version of the contemporary, liberal bureaucratic state will be required to “disinterestedly’ ensure the protection of rights. I disagree with both views profoundly and wish to present to socialists an alternative ethic, one I call the ethics of praxis.

The theory of abstract rights was initially developed, contra Brighouse, not in the twentieth century, but in the eighteenth century, by the classic bourgeois philosopher, Immanuel Kant Abstract rights theory is based upon a bourgeois view of human nature: the view that human beings are inherently selfish.

Thus any concept of social utility, of what is “good” for society as a whole, must be colored by this selfishness. Hence questions of social utility must be completely divorced horn consideration of rights, if the rights of individuals and minorities are to be adequately respected. Moreover, only bureaucratic officials can be trusted to best observe these abstract principles and thus protect rights.

Brighouse claims that Rawls’ and Dworkin’s respect for private property and the market can be filtered out of their theories, leaving a doctrine fit for socialists. But their justification of a bureaucratic state to “protect” rights is equally bourgeois: it is through such states that exploitative ruling classes, be they capitalist or collectivist, rule. In addition, by its very definition, this theory is individualist, impractical, and thus antirevolutionary. It was developed by Kant to sanctify bourgeois individualist life, by calling the bourgeoisie individually to their abstract moral “duty”—abstract from any consideration of what effect the bourgeoisie, as a class and concretely, had upon the real world through its exploitation. Rawls’ thought performs a similar service for welfare. Thus this theory gives socialists no practical suggestions as to how to ensure the protection of right through the conflictual and very messy process of social revolution, nor even explains why rights should be respected during such conflict.

Fisk goes to the opposite extreme: he ends up tossing out liberal ideals altogether. For Fisk, that class which controls society through the state controls the press, and by implications, makes the decisions about rights in general. There is no ideal, utopian, absolute freedom of the press, or any other freedom, freed from all consideration of what class controls society.

Fisk’s Councilist Tyranny

If by a “utopian” ideal of a free press, Fisk means the bourgeois notion that their press puts forward a single view that is at the same time completely neutral and free of class content, one cannot help but agree. But by dismissing “utopian ideals,” Fisk is also arguing as does Lenin in State and Revolution, that because bourgeois freedom of the press against the state or the ruling class is an illusion, any and all freedom of the press against whatever class happens to be in power must likewise be an illusion. The actual monopoly on speech and press held by the bourgeoisie will be merely replaced by a monopoly of the workers’ councils and a monopoly of political rights for workers alone. To quote Lenin:

“the dictatorship of the proletariat …. cannot produce merely an expansion of democracy. Together with an immense expansion of democracy which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor… for the people, and not democracy for the rich folk, the dictatorship of the proletariat produces a series of restrictions of liberty in the case of the oppressors the exploiters, the capitalists.”(1)

In Fisk’s vision of a socialist press, one view, once again, will be expressed: it will be more truthful because it is the view of the workers. So much for the “timeless” ideal of socialist pluralism. So much for anybody, including individual workers themselves, who might disagree with the “official workers’” view.

Fisk’s and Lenin’s view makes the same error as Thrasymachus, the spokesmen for class tyranny in Plato’s Republic. The absolute power of the tyrant, be he/she/they a fifth century B.C. aristocrat or a workers’ vanguard party, supposedly gives him/her/them all power over human beings, their public speech and action. The tyrant supposedly has power over truth, and thus reality itself; for no one dare oppose her/him/them. Thus the temptation of absolute power: Since no one can effectively complain about the tyrannical exercise of power now, the tyrant is lulled into a smug difference as to the question of whether such exercise can harm him/her/they or defeat him/her/their goals later on.

Fisk’s Leninist notion that workers’ control will “take care of” the problem of minority and individual rights is also based upon a crude version of historical materialism. As we shall see, Marx and Engels do not see historical determinism as a substitute for ethics, nor dismiss all ethical ideals as ahistorical. What they did was to see history as the necessary ground for the practical realization of these ideals. What Lenin and Fisk do is short-circuit this grounding process, so as to transform “History,” “the practical demands of Life” [Lenin] into a new god, whose mystical power over events leaves them and the working class morally off the hook “History” becomes, like Machiavelli’s Fortuna, a willful, all-demanding goddess who “will never forgive us” [Lenin], or in whose “dustbin” we will be thrown [Trotsky], if we do not abandon all moral scruples and do “what needs to be done.”

Finally, to discard wholesale the ethical principles learned from the past, as Fisk seems to sanction, does not mean that the “pragmatic” flexibility one thus attains is somehow “value free.” Class society conditions human beings unconsciously to dominate and ultimately to exploit their fellows. In other words, unless we consciously attempt to humanize our perception of our fellows, treating them as potential subjects, we tend to dehumanize them, as objects. There is never a “value-free,” ethically contentless middle ground.

The ethical relativism and nihilism of the Bolsheviks made them receptive to the Social Darwinism that crept into the Second International and European society in general during the latter part of the nineteenth century.(2) For both Kautsky and his comrades in Germany, and for the Bolsheviks, classes of human beings other than workers, such as the peasants, become species of hostile enemy aliens, incorrigibly and irretrievably “bourgeois,”—even if capitalism made the peasants’ lives increasingly miserable! Thus, for the Bolsheviks, the peasants were unfit for political rights in socialist society, and were to be arbitrarily repressed whenever this was convenient for the revolutionary regime.(3)

This Darwinist view of consciousness as somehow indelibly stamped upon whole classes of men, irrespective of later changes in their economic conditions, is also responsible for the paternalism in Lenin’s thought, a paternalism unconsciously adopted by Fisk. Since everyone, even the working class, has been “corrupted” by bourgeois consciousness to some degree, a socialist regime is fully justified in securing a monopoly on speech and press, via terror and censorship, to protect the masses from further “contamination.”

The Basic Ethical Problem

From Plato to Marx, ethical philosophers have considered the basic ethical conflict between impulse and benefit. In any society conditioned by scarcity, there is a rift between short-term selfish gain for the individual and the long-term individual and collective benefit that might accrue from respect and compassion for the welfare and rights of the other members of one’s community.

Of course, in most class societies, such long-term communal benefit is an illusion fostered by the ruling class to discipline the lower classes and encourage them to sacrifice for the good of the whole, while in fact they are sacrificing for the good of the ruling class.

Nevertheless, the problem of how to reconcile impulse and benefit is relevant to social revolution. Since such revolutions are heirs to scarcity, the proletariat must attempt to use rational principles to govern impulse. Of course, such principles must, unlike the principles of the past, be fully compatible with collective self-management and freedom rather than blind obedience to exploiters. In other words, such principles must be used by the members of the proletariat, and their class allies, the peasantry and petit-bourgeoisie, in order to further their own rational self-government.

The intellectual representatives of the bourgeoisie, especially in the period preceding and during their political revolutions—the mercantilist period, stretching from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries—were also required to grapple with the problem of rational self-government. Formerly, both political and economic power had been wielded in completely private fashion by feudal aristocrats, and then by absolute monarchs.

If the bourgeoisie were to rule society, they had a serious task before them. First, to defeat the private political power of the feudalists. Second, to transform a society characterized essentially by privates inherited economic and political power into a society regulated by a single and universal free market, free of all parochial trade barriers.

For both these tasks, a centralized state needed to be constructed. The bourgeoisie had to control this state, more or less collectively, as well as convince their artisan and peasant class allies that they would benefit from the creation of such a state, and from such—bourgeois–participation. The ideal of collective political participation, along with the problems of implementing that ideal, was not just propaganda: it was a real task that the bourgeoisie had to come to terms with, through its intellectual representatives.

How could the “people” create for themselves a popular republic, where they might rule? Living in a republic meant that a public space would have to be established in which the people felt comfortable about questioning, criticizing, and replacing state officials. If the power of the aristocrats and monarchs was not to be restored, if the private, selfish impulse of state officials was not to be translated into arbitrary, tyrannical rule and terror, destroying that public space, the people would have to learn how to respect and support each others’ rights rather than be manipulated by officials into punishing those who dissent, or into accepting such punishment silently.

The Ethics of Praxis

Marx and Engels did not discard such basic ethical considerations: they simply grounded them within the practical possibilities for their realization offered by the dialectics of economic history. In his “Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State,” Marx brings up the classic distinction between short-term selfish interest and the long-term benefits of ethical consideration. He argues that the proletariat—because its very humanity is economically oppressed, universally and completely—must become the class which unites ethical concern and short-term interest. Driven by their material oppression, the proletariat find that they must embrace the ethical ideal of human liberation, if they are to survive economically.(4)

I call such an ethics the ethics of praxis. The term praxis, borrowed from the Greeks (Aristotle being the most important) and used by Marx, meant the information of political and social action by theory. For Marx, as well as for Aristotle, the theoretical and practical considerations informing action has an ethical component. That is, not only the short-term, immediate consequences of social action for one’s self and/or for the working class, but also the long-range effects that action upon other selves and/or classes might have upon one’s own self/working class—especially upon the prospects for the historical (and eminently ethical) project of that class: socialism. As such, praxis must comprehend both the practical utility and the historical necessity of ethical principles to inform action.

Within the realm of political ethics, as revealed in the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere, it is the ethic of democracy that informs socialist praxis. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels repeatedly insist upon the notion that the practical attainment and maintenance of political power by the proletariat—which is only a means to proletarian and human liberation—is, in turn, necessarily conditioned upon the pursuit of a particular political ideal: democracy. To win political power, the proletariat must “win the battle of democracy.”

As Engels says late in his life, “our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of the democratic republic,” which is in fact the “political form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”(5) (Revising the Roman definition of the term dictator—”savior of the republic”—Marx and Engels conceived the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as the “decisive, revolutionary leadership by the proletariat to build socialism”: leadership to establish a new system of social right—within, as Engels insists, a democratic system of political right).

The same view is expressed in his Eighteenth Brumaire and The Civil War in France.(6) What Marx and Engels meant by the democratic republic was a radical democracy, like the Paris Commune that both he and Marx elsewhere also identify as this “political form” of proletarian dictatorship.

Why must democracy, in the sense of both majority rule and minority and individual rights, be the necessary political ideal of the proletariat if it is to achieve political power and achieve socialism? In The Civil War in France, Marx emphasizes that radical democracy is necessary to ensure that a new “hierarchical investiture,” a state unaccountable to the working masses and feeding off those masses economically, does not rise once again.(7) But there is little beyond that in the way of a theoretical defense of rights.

I suggest that we turn to the democratic, liberal views of Marx’s and Engels’s contemporaries, J.S. Mill and Alex de Tocqueville. All four of these thinkers were heir to the classical republican traditions. All four sought to adapt that tradition to the nineteenth century: when the masses were increasingly demanding, and gaining, political power. And all four attempted to deal with the problem of Bonapartism: the danger that the state could use the conflict between classes over the issue of equality, to become all powerful in its own right. Though Mill and Tocqueville were antagonistic to Marx’s and Engels’ revolutionary socialism, their views on the practical utility of individual and minority rights to democracy, by itself, is valuable to socialists and fully compatible with Marx’s and Engels’ own views.

For these thinkers, abstract rights theory was ludicrously ineffectual. Minority rights were just as important to democracy as was majority rule, because these rights—including each individual’s right to equal political participation—acted as the only effective counterweight to the threat of what they called “tyranny of the majority.”

The term, “tyranny of the majority,” connoted the threat posed when the state manipulated the conformist tendencies of majorities in order to scapegoat and persecute dissenting, non-conformist minorities, thus permitting the state to aggrandize greater power for itself. We have now seen in “democratic capitalist” and “bureaucratic collectivist” societies that elites, propertied or bureaucratic, can exploit such “majority” tyranny to destroy dissent, playing off the majority against dissenting minorities, and thus maintain and aggrandize their power.

This is the threat Marx is hinting at in The Civil War in France, when he talks of the possibility of a new “hierarchic investiture.” Marx, a theorist of praxis, sees ethics not as ends in themselves or even merely as generally useful, but instead, as especially necessary for the working class if it is to achieve its—materially driven—historical mission of creating socialism. It is only through direct majority rule, as well as through a firm insistence on minority and individual rights for all those who obey the laws of this new republic, that this threat of a new bureaucratic state–a threat to the socialist project of the working class itself—will be confronted and “smashed.”

Against Thought Control

Such democratic processes and rights must be available to all law-abiding individuals, regardless of their class background. For a socialist government to arrogate to itself the right to censor “bourgeois” thought is paternalistic nonsense. Rosa Luxemburg argued, basing her arguments on J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, itis far more dangerous for the vanguard party to censor and control thought and speech than to shackle it, within and without the party, because this robs people’s ability to think for themselves, to trust what the government says.

Marx vehemently opposed any notion that the working class should rule undemocratically—even if the society in question was underdeveloped, leaving the proletariat in the minority. At the Meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist League, his colleague Schapper argued that “the question at issue is whether we ourselves chop off a few heads right at the start, or whether it is our own heads that will fall. In France (which at the time still had a peasant majority, as did Germany) the workers will come to power, and thereby we in Germany too. If we come to power we can take such measures as are necessary to ensure the rule of the proletariat.”

Marx’s response was that Schapper’s view was “nationalist” and “idealist,” and that Marx had “always resisted the momentary opinions of the proletariat” In other words, Schapper’s view is a voluntarist, demagogic fantasy. Germany’s appalling backwardness made any revolutionary success there possible only after another “twenty to thirty years of struggle.” As for France, Marx argues that even though the proletariat is subjectively ready now, and although “there are plenty of things we can do” extra-governmentally, the proletariat can only rule unofficially, “outside the official government” of the petit-bourgeois and peasant majority.(8)

Anything else, for Marx, would be undemocratic and therefore disastrous, as it proved to be when the Bolsheviks attempted class despotism over the peasantry during their “War Communism” phase. Despotic political and economic action by the working class alienated the peasant majority, greatly intensifying and prolonging the Civil War, and bureaucratizing the revolution.(9)

Rosa Luxemburg based her critique of the Russian Revolution precisely upon these practical grounds. For Luxemburg, what had to be understood thoroughly by any revolutionary was that human beings had something she called “spirit.” Human beings are not objects to be bureaucratically manipulated by a centralized state, a la the bourgeois Jacobins. Social revolution involves a subjective process as well, in which people must see their freedom to realize their aspirations expand if they are to identify with the revolution. Radical democracy strengthens that subjective process; censorship and bureaucracy chokes and kills it.

Hence the ideal of democracy cannot be “put on hold” until “after” the revolution: this very “putting off” of democracy destroys the revolution!(10)

Assemblies and Councils

The political form compatible with the social praxis of Marx, Engels and Luxemburg is a radical democratic state, consisting of local, regional, and national assemblies of universally elected and removable delegates, as well as councils in which the workers, peasants and middle class can participate directly and personally to control their life conditions, in their workplaces and neighborhoods. This is the political form which these thinkers themselves championed, in Marx’s praise for the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France, in Luxemburg’s critique of the Bolsheviks’ failure to create assemblies alongside councils in The Russian Revolution.

Such a state permits everyone a chance to participate, directly and through a process of delegation which democratically equalizes their input into the general political and economic decisions made at the local, regional, and national levels. This state permits citizens to appeal decisions that they feel violate their rights, because it is not only purely a single localized, class-centered council that has all power over them. Yet this state still puts the proletariat and its middle class allies—the majority in any society, underdeveloped or advanced—in power, through majority rule and through the superior intellectual and military position of the proletariat.

Finally, this state does what Brighouse’s and Fisk’s states fail to do: it protects rights, and yet does so without giving elitist hierarchical “protectors” of those rights any power or legitimacy. The people themselves protect their own rights, democratically and pluralistically. This is the state form, and the underlying ethics of praxis, that all socialists should understand and champion.


  1. Vladimir Illich Lenin, State and Revolution (New York, International Publishers, 1934 chapter V., part 2, 71-75.
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  2. Gary P. Steenson, Karl Kautsky, 1854-1938: Marxism in the Classical Years (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978). James Allen Rogers, “Darwinism, Scientism, and Nihilism,” The Russian Review, (v. 19, no. 1, January 1960) 10-23.
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  3. See Leon Trotsky, Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution, Basic Writings, ed. Irving Howe (New York: Schocken Books, 1976) 131-32, excerpt from Stalin (1946).
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  4. Marx, “Introduction to the Critique,” Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 6 (New York: International Publishers, 1974), 186-87.
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  5. EngeIs, Marx-Engels Werke vol. 22 (lnstitut fir Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED; Berlin: Dietz-VerIag, 1856-68. tr. Hal Draper, in his Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 3 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966), 318.
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  6. Marx, section III of “Class StruggIes,” MECW: 10 1849-51 (1978) section VII of the “Brumaire,” 118-125; MECW 11: 1851-53 (1979) 187-93, and section II of the “Civil War,” MECW 22: 1870-71 (1986), 336-38.
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  7. Marx, “Civil War in France,” MECW: 22; 1870-71 (1986) 328-29.
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  8. Marx and Schapper, “Meeting of the Central Committee of the League, MECW 10, 626-29.
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  9. Roy Medvedev, “The October Revolution” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 145-187. Marx, “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, March 1850, MECW 10, 283-85.
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  10. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961).
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May-June 1991, ATC 32