THE UTTERANCE of morals or morality within a communist space is one that may, in the best of cases, raise a few eyebrows or, in the worst of cases, summon calls for condemnation or accusations of being unscientific. The subject of communist morality is one that is often ignored within the broader revolutionary left, while at the same time—especially within our current insurrectionary moment—beckons to be engaged with. When I speak with comrades participating in the revolts and rebellions erupting around the world, or those engaging in mutual aid efforts to bridge the failures of the imperial state in their response to the pandemic, I’ve had to confront my own relative discomfort—or, to put it more truthfully, my lack of ontological seriousness—concerning what seems to be the stark empirical tenacity of good and evil within our material world. These moral realties, while perhaps eliciting a scoff by Western intellectuals, are an obvious part of the lived experiences of many of the world proletariat.
As the hydra of neoliberalism begins its inevitable collapse, throwing capitalism once more into a global crisis—and thusly its imperialist head begins to twist fascistically from the periphery back inward toward the United States and Europe—these categories that before seemed abstract and idealistic suddenly become vivid and tangible. Every crack of the police baton across the back, every rubber bullet or tear gas container lodged into a bike helmet, every lie uttered and inscribed by the cops, every rebel disappeared off the street by the secret police, every choked breath of air laced with tear gas all become imbued with obvious, empirical, evil intent. And these examples do not even delve into the multiplicity of wider evils within the capitalist system, of which the so-called “justice system” acts as its armed and punitive wing. Evil is how these injustices are described—in a non-hyperbolic fashion—by those engaged in the frontlines of revolutionary activity. So why is morality eschewed and denounced in left academic discourse? Are morals solely the provenance of the reactionary right or the dreamy idealist?
Famously, Marx wrote very little on morality, at least directly. The reasons for this have been hotly contested, but I will synthesize this aversion with a couple of historical examples: the first is due to Marx equating morals with ideology. For Marx, concepts like justice, morality, good, and evil are to be analyzed applying the framework of hi torical materialism—these concepts are notions suspended within a society’s superstructure wherein they spiral in a dialectical relationship with the means and relations of production, thereby assisting in the stabilization of a society’s base. Marx recognized that there exists a dialectical double-helix between the material/ideal and the abstract/concrete but, unlike his philosophical mentor Hegel, Marx (and Engels) insisted that this relationship blossoms first from that which is tangible—“in direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here it is a matter of ascending from earth to heaven.” Additionally, Marx is sometimes accused of being flippant or hostile to the idea that capitalism itself is an unjust system. Indeed, in Capital, he seems to describe that the exploitative extraction of profits from the worker by the capitalist is not an unjust social relation at all:
The owner of the money has paid the value of a day’s labour-power; he therefore has the use of it for a day, a day’s labour belongs to him. On the one hand the daily sustenance of labour-power costs only half a day’s labour, while on the other hand the very same labour-power can remain effective, can work, during a whole day, and consequently the value which its use during one day creates is double what the capitalist pays for that use; this circumstance is a piece of good luck for the buyer [the capitalist], but by no means an injustice [Unrecht] toward the seller [the worker].
Despite the word Gerechtigkeit (justice) barely appearing in Marx’s writing, he remains far from taking an amoral stance. His fiery descriptions of capitalism’s injustices erupt from a righteous fury over the apparent immoral character of the entire system of production. In a later passage in Capital, he seems to back down from his previous outward amorality:
There is not one single atom of [capital’s] value that does not owe its existence to unpaid labour...even if the [capitalist class] uses a portion of that tribute to purchase the additional labour-power [from the working class] at its full price...the whole thing still remains the age-old activity of the conqueror, who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has stolen from them.
Marx’s consistent use of morally loaded words like “stolen,” “exploited,” “embezzled,” etc. hint at an internal conflict that have led some Marxist scholars to suggested a controversial psychological explanation: while Marx may have believed that capitalism was immoral or unjust, he did not believe that he believed it was so—or perhaps he suppressed these instincts in an attempt to remain positivist or scientific. It was in unguarded moments within his writing that Marx’s communist morality shined through.
The same could be said in this passage by Engels, who starts with a materialist description of morals but, like his partner Marx, begins to let his guard down:
All moral theories have been hither-to the product, in the last analysis, of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time. 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.
Here Engels hints at a higher conception of morality—one that is disparate from solely class relations and antagonisms—or, as I will argue later, a time in which morals have withered away. He begins to steal a mischievous glance over the horizon toward a communist future, while still remaining grounded in the Marxist resolve that morality is an historical phenomenon produced by human beings and, as such, is entirely dependent upon a society’s material relations. That said, morality, much like religion, was looked upon by Marx as suspect, as he saw these metaphysical engagements as ultimately serving the bourgeoisie.
However, it becomes hard for me to think of morality as inherently an oppressive tool of the ruling class. After all, we would be hard pressed to find a communist who isn’t drawn to Marxism—or any left tendency for that matter—who doesn’t possess a strong, disciplined moral conviction that guides their actions and assists them in determining what is the right or wrong course of revolutionary action. And the choice that is deemed good/right—whether it is derived from a scientific or utopian framework—tends to be similar no matter the tendency: a devotion to toppling capitalism, a love for humanity and the drive to assist in the liberation/empowerment of the dispossessed, the desire to bring about and defend communism, a rejection of racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. It is only in the strategies for achieving these morally correct choices that the many left-tendencies begin to diverge. In short, I argue that a communist is foremost a moral actor and as such, we draw from an explicit, yet often nebulously defined, communist morality. In order to develop this assertion further, I will pivot from thinking with Marx and Engels to thinking with Lenin.
The Dialectics of Communist Morality
The concept of a communist morality is not a novel idea. Lenin confronts the myth that communism is an immoral, or at best amoral, system during a speech to the third All-Russia Congress of The Russian Young Communist League on October 2, 1920. He addresses this falsehood head on: “Is there such a thing as communist morality? Of course, there is.” Lenin argues that morality not only exists for a good communist, but it also serves as a uniting factor within communist organization—particularly in its ability to suss out and defeat who he calls “the exploiters.” That said, Lenin remains suspicious of any kind of morality that stands outside of class struggle. Much like Marx, he finds this formulation of morals to be synonymous with a bourgeois morality, which often places its moral and ethical positions upon the foundation of religion—specifically Christianity—and therefore, according to Lenin, these philosophies become part of the undemocratic dominion of the clergy.
Consequently, Lenin saw a moral struggle being waged in a similar manner—and up- on the same historical stage—as class strug- gle. Bourgeois morality is predicated on ex- ploitation, with its ultimate goal being the annihilation of the working class—both of their spirits and their physical beings. In contrast, proletarian morality exists not only as a class unifier, but also as the motor of history, leading the way toward human liberation. Although Lenin explicitly and repeatedly states throughout his speech that communist morality is subordinated to the interests of proletarian class struggle, I argue that we must also consider additional dialectical relationships between morals and the revolution. Namely, I argue that we must account for a relational moral dialectic between the proletariat/bourgeoisie, the individual/society, and the semiotic/nature.
Proletariat/Bourgeoisie This dialectic is perhaps the most obvious to even the most novice student of communist philosophy. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat exist as the two fundamental classes since the Industrial Revolution— locked in an eternal struggle in which neither achieves complete victory until the other is entirely vanquished. Ultimately, in each of these paired relational moral categories, with it being the most pronounced in the case of the proletariat/bourgeoisie, there exists this struggle—this core dialectic—of oppression and subordination.
To put it simply, bourgeois morality rests on a societal flattening of the world; at its core lies an unnuanced simplification of social categories. Let’s take, for example, the classic moral trope of stealing. The “evil of stealing” is often touted as being proof of some kind of a universal moral imperative for humanity. Bourgeois moralists will often preach that throughout history, humanity understood that stealing was wrong, and it is only those that suffer from a pathology of immorality who resort to stealing the property of others. This is often asserted with very little historical evidence to back up such a claim—or the evidence is criminally cherry-picked. Furthermore, cross-cultural subtleties within the concept of “stealing” are often ignored. Relatedly, never have I heard this argument being made using anthropological evidence (probably because the ethnographic data is far too rich, nuanced, and is completely counter to the bourgeois Manichean world-view).
Of course, the great hidden truth in this kind of bourgeois moral proselytizing is that stealing is not inherently wrong in capitalism. It happens every day. The development of the capitalist system itself is predicated on the theft of life and land from Indigenous peoples and the theft of life, labor, and place from the peoples of Africa. For a contemporary example, the United States government regularly rewards thieves, such as in the passing of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008—more colloquially known as the “bank bailout” in which bankers made off with billions of dollars following their deliberate crashing of the economy. Meanwhile, millions of working-class Americans were rewarded with broken lives—lost jobs, families, and homes. Today, many of us remain little more than indentured servants to the bourgeois state, drowning in our compounding student loan debt.
Additionally, corruption and bribes are so ordinary within the halls of bourgeois government that they have decided to bring the practice out from behind the curtain of illegality/immorality. To make bribing more palatable to the average American, they employed a modern capitalist tactic called “re-branding”—bribing is now referred to as “campaign contributions.” The effect is still the same: businesses pay enormous sums of money to lawmakers who, in turn, act as intermediaries. The businesses themselves employ lawyers to write legislation that would allow them to further pillage Indigenous land, hasten the degradation of the Earth, continue the theft of wages from the working class, and otherwise build a buffer of pilfered wealth to protect themselves from the next inevitable crash of capitalism and the accelerating collapse of the environment. The lawmaker then dutifully delivers this legislation to Congress for passage into law, thus reinforcing that this is a supposed legitimate, effective, and moral practice of governance.
Stealing only becomes a grave moral sin when the bourgeois hegemony is challenged. It is only when the proletariat begins, en masse, to expropriate food from groceries and merchandise from department stores that the appeals to (bourgeois) morality begin to flood social media, news networks, and tabloids. Of course, it’s also no coincidence that all these communicative platforms are owned by the same couple of individuals. The last thing a capitalist wants is for the working class to get a very small taste of reclaiming what is rightfully theirs—the fruits of their labor. As has been demonstrated by the popular rebellions of the past ten years, but especially since 2016, the role of the oppressor and the subordinate are not static categories—these are dialectical relationships forged in struggle. The establishment of autonomous zones, the taking over and burning down of police stations, and the expropriation of goods, food, weaponry, and equipment from the state have cracked the apparent monolithic veneer of exclusionary bourgeois morality and illuminated good proletarian morality based on community, self-defense, mutual aid, and equitable justice. Put plainly, the moral actions of the rebels are laying the foundations for a possible communism. These initial forays intomoral proletarian oppression of the bourgeoisie are necessary first steps toward eroding their hegemony and working toward their eventual eradication as a class.
Individual/Society The relational dialectic between the individual and society is at the core of communist morality. It is also often the most fraught. The individual is not the society in microcosm, nor is a society just made up of self-interested individuals. The relationship between these two categories is fast-moving and ever-changing—and for that reason, it becomes challenging to attack the hegemony of bourgeois morality. A communist morality must always take as its conceptual point of departure what is best for the collective over the individual. The word conceptual becomes important here as this detail is often ignored by communism’s critics, and it’s instead taken up as some kind of absolute. Many attacks initiated by anti-communists will assert that socialist experiments in the past and present are inherently driven by selfish authoritarian impulses in which the ends always justify the means. In actuality, this is a simple case of psychological projection in which the bourgeoisie implicate their own cruel morals upon their enemies, since a philosophy in which the ends are justified by any means is vital to the survival of capitalism as a system.
Often, anti-communists will trod out some perversion of an unsubstantiated quote from Lenin in which he supposedly said that “the rights of the individual are bourgeois fiction.” At best, this is an amalgam pieced together out of context. In fact, Lenin’s ideas about the role of the individual in a socialist society were quite nuanced and they shifted considerably over time. First and foremost, Lenin held in high regard the notion of individual talent, and in many of his writings he expressed that the establishment of socialism would lead to a blossoming of the individual.
This is largely because capitalist conditions necessarily suppress the creativity of individuals, which ends up transmogrifying on a societal scale. Much like in my previous example, this leads to an ironic projection about communism only generating drab, barracks-gray uniformity and dictatorial cheerlessness when, in actuality, these are the precise conditions produced by capitalism. One only needs to drive through any suburb in the United States to see capitalism’s sprawling creation of dreary identical subdivisions and/or spend two minutes negotiating with a landlord or petty despot of a Homeowners Association to experience the cold, irrational logic of capitalism’s authoritarian soullessness—but I digress.
I am focusing specifically on Lenin in this subsection because I feel that he was genuinely attempting to grapple with the complexities of the individual/society dialectic, particularly in its relationship with the development of communist morality. There are numerous historical examples for this—for example, his theorizing on the shift from the destructive tasks of revolution toward creative ones or his modification of the accelerated communistic practices of War Communism to the innovations of the New Economic Policy. His ultimate motivation—which may come as a surprise to his critics—has its roots in his deep and undying confidence that the proletariat is more than capable of developing, shaping, managing, and perfecting moral attitudes and mass movements themselves.
Lenin’s commitment to an uncompromising and independent Vanguard Party reached its peak in 1901–02 following his publishing of the influential pamphlet What Is to Be Done? However, following the first Russian Revolution in 1905, these ideas began to fade as he quickly recognized that the people themselves may be capable of organizing and carrying out revolution—or at least that a vanguard party might form more organically than he had initially theorized. By the time he published his April Theses on the eve of the July Days and the October Revolution in 1917, he shocked many of his own Bolshevik base because it seemed as if he took an ultra-radical turn. The theses in his Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution included such iconoclastic proposals as: the transformation of the “predatory imperialist war” (World War I) into a revolutionary struggle to be launched against the world bourgeoisie; a rigid refusal to work with the Russian Provisional Government; the immediate transference of the entirety of state power to the system of established soviets (councils) modeled on the Paris Commune; the abolition of the police, the army, and the bureaucracy; the equitable leveling of all incomes; and the nationalizing of all lands, including banks.
Lenin’s April Theses laid the possibilities for an actually existing communist morality. While the demands were political, they were founded upon a sense of deep moral justice—reckoning with what would be best for both the individual and the socialist society he demanded be created from the ashes of the Provisional Government.
The moral draw was so powerful that even several anarchist affinity groups heeded Lenin’s call, drawn to his Bakuninesque appeal for “a break-up and a revolution a thousand times more powerful than that of February.” As an aside, these “Soviet anarchists” fought so fiercely and loyally against the White Armies during the Civil War that Lenin praised them as “the most dedicated supporters of Soviet power.”
Following the establishment of the Soviet Union, Lenin did not cease trying to develop a communist morality that accounted for both the individual and Soviet society. He singled out the subbotniks (literally, Saturdayians), which was a movement initiated “by the workers on their own initiative” that spent Saturdays working without pay on public works projects in cities throughout the Union—in other words, quite literally building socialism. In a manuscript entitled A Great Beginning, Lenin declares that the subbotnik movement is engaged in a struggle “more difficult, more tangible, more radical, and more decisive than the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.” Lenin himself was so impressed with this organic attempt at morally transitioning one’s individual relationship to labor within society that he became a subbotnik himself, rolling up his sleeves and assisting workers in the shunting yards or helping lay bricks in the streets of Moscow.
Despite the organic success of the subbotnik movement, Lenin did not sink into the utopian logic that with the success of revolution came the immediate harmony of a working class for-itself. In his How to Organize Competition?, Lenin discusses how a society might organize itself in order to develop comradely competition in order to spark innovation—as well as how to combat those that act against their own/the society’s interest (he castigates these individuals with a variety of epithets: parasites, hangers-on, spongers, lackeys, etc.). While not exclusively, these “hangers-on” metamorphize into the broader problem of the kulak, which is discussed and acted upon at great length just a few years later. Lenin and others were working to make sure that competition did not become designated “for-capitalist-use-only.” Socialist competition, Lenin argued, was more than capable of surpassing the innovations of cutthroat capitalist competition by severing the “financial fraud, nepotism, [and] servility” from competitive practice and allowing workers to “display their abilities, develop the capacities, and reveal those talents, so abundant among the people whom capitalism crushed, suppressed and strangled in thousands and millions.”
Lenin then identified two foundational tenets for the development of a communist morality: (a) trust in the proletariat as an agentive class and (b) placing an emphasis on the development of political education programs to help channel intrinsic talent. He notes: “But every rank-and-file worker and peasant who can read and write, who can judge people and has practical experience, is capable of organisational work.” The great C.L.R. James found enormous inspiration in this sentiment, summing up Lenin’s ideas and applying them to the anti-colonial struggle in his Every Cook Can Govern. This sentiment further serves as the foundation of revolutionary praxis today and has been a proven moral model historically taken up by a variety of radical movements ranging from the Cuban Revolution to the National Liberation Front in Vietnam to the Black Panthers in the United States.
The project of building a communist morality bridging the individual with society is not without its dangers. One historical example that we can learn from is the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism adopted at the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was an attempt to codify the terms of the relation of a person to Soviet society. However, this deontological method—like the vast array of religious decrees of virtue—is not dialectical nor is it materialist. When morals are inscribed and codified as commandments—particularly within a state structure—they have the potential to lose their ability to shift organically and dialogically as a society’s material conditions shift. Without this ability to fluidly respond to, and intertwine with, the material conditions of the society as a whole, the risk of the individual becoming dominated and coerced by the values of the ruling class increases and, consequently, the project of morality becomes unmoored from the communist struggle.
This last subsection will be less comprehensive than the first two, but this in no way means it is less important. The way that we, as communists, make meaning out of (and with) Nature, both materially and otherwise, is paramount in this age of ecological collapse.
With the intensification of capitalist extraction and the resulting ecological fallout from this abusive relationship, it becomes exceedingly essential for (settler-)colonizers around the world to listen to what Indigenous peoples have been saying since the first European landed on foreign soil, eyes blazing with greed, surveying the land and its people and seeing only resources. The immorality of this semiotic torsion—that nature only exists for its materials—is an Enlightenment tradition that even contemporary Marxists struggle to overcome. Comrades at The Red Nation, the K’é Infoshop in the Navajo Nation, and the Táala Hooghan Infoshop in occupied Flagstaff have helped me considerably in working to overturn these Western biases.
Further afield, one can gain an enormous amount of knowledge regarding semiotics/nature by studying some of the early proletarian scientists, many of whom took the moral stakes of this dialectic quite seriously. Scientists like Vladimir Vernadsky theorized the interconnectedness between human beings and nature. In 1926, he published his seminal work The Biosphere in which he essentially outlined a version of the Gaia Hypothesis fifty-three years before James Lovelock released his Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. While not succumbing to neo-vitalism, Vernadsky provided a material analysis that illustrated the symbiotic and interconnected nature of our planet.
Vernadsky’s legacy on the semiotic/nature dialectic continues to influence contemporary Marxist theory and science. I see his work having elective affinity with Georg Lukács’ argument for the necessity of the “double transformation” between human social relations and humanity’s relationship with Nature. Exemplary work has been done in this regard by Cuban ecologists who—heeding Marx’s notion of the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism”—have been able to increase crop productivity while decoupling damaging industrial agricultural practices, thereby closing this metabolic rift through an alternative method of food production known as agroecology.
Finally, the naturalist and anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin has given us a wealth of scientific field data illustrating the moral practices of non-human animals, highlighting that vicious self-interest and ruthless competition are not within the “nature” of any animal—human or otherwise. Instead, these ideas must be taught, entrenched, and stabilized through collective social interaction. Kropotkin argues that “animals living in societies are also able to distinguish between good and evil, just as [humans do].” From ants to marmots to hedge sparrows, Kropotkin gives observational data illustrating that the entirety of the animal kingdom seems to live by a natural law of solidarity within their own communities, following the dictum “do to others what you would have them do to you in the same circumstances.” Many non-human creatures that are caught acting selfishly and devoid of solidarity within their communities regularly receive capital punishment from their comrades.
The Counter-Hegemonic Project of Communist Morality
So—what is to be done?
On the one hand, this is simply a call for the radical left to engage with moral discourse in order to meet our fascistic enemies head-on and not cede any ground to their putrid ideology. The fascists have historically and contemporarily mobilized discourse on morals quite effectively. Moral arguments tend to enliven the North Atlantic base, in part because of a phenomenon I call the hegemony of the sermon—embodied elements of theological performance and discourse that have been practiced and emulated within the sphere of Western politics for centuries.
These fascistic moral arguments have mutated rapidly in the past few years and are now an even more imminent threat to leftists—in particular, I’m thinking here of the evolution of QAnon and am reminded of Comrade Leroy’s short profile on that movement’s effective engagement with morals and the divine. At the time of this writing, paramilitary fascists have initiated setting up roadblocks across wildfire evacuation routes under the moral guise that “ANTIFA” has set the fires that are devastating the Western United States. A quick material analysis would illuminate the fact that the intensity and frequency of these wildfires is largely due to capitalist accelerated climate change and human negligence—but the fact that an irrational fascist moral fad has spread so quickly, and generated such a rapid armed response, demonstrates the need and necessity of a counter-hegemonic communist morality.
In order to contemplate how this might be accomplished, let’s turn to thinking with the theorist who originally developed the idea of cultural hegemony: Antonio Gramsci. One of the most pertinent components of Gramsci’s social theories were his distinctions between what he termed the war of maneuver and the war of position. The war of maneuver is the classic revolutionary model by way of a (para)military insurrection; but Gramsci argued that this method has been supplemented within late capitalism by a multifaceted, subterranean, longue durée cultural struggle—the war of position.
These terms originally emerged as descriptions of war tactics, but they have seen numerous intellectual engagements at the intersection of military theory and Marxism. Contemporary theorists to Gramsci—such as Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky—have each written on the nature of political strategy and war; as have countless others who were inspired by him, such as Mao Zedong, Vo Nguyen Giap, Che Guevara, Régis Debray, Josip Broz Tito, Kwame Nkrumah, and countless Soviet military theorists.
A communist morality, then, must be built within the framework of Gramsci’s war of position. A war of maneuver will not manifest without significant progress being made by a counter-hegemonic war of position. In some ways, this work is already underway. Despite the liberal tepidity of organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, one thing they have succeeded in doing is introducing the word “socialist” back into the collective consciousness of the United States.
Decades of Red Scare brainwashing arrested even the utterance of the word in many political spaces; but today, numerous comrades in Generation Z seem to exemplify Gramsci’s concept of the organic intellectual who—being far enough removed from Cold War propaganda—unflinchingly research and fight that war of position for socialism and communism. Why is this? I believe it has its roots in the base moral motivation for every budding communist: a yearning for the collective good life.
Marx frequently wrote that communism would create a society of abundance—most famously in his oft-quoted summation of the system: “from e