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What is morality?

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Our rulers set a moral code for us to live by, while living by a different set of rules themselves. Sam Ord explores what morality means for working class people
Issue 2778
Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky
Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky authored the pamphlet, Their Morals and Ours

It is incredibly common to find outrage in the mainstream news that brands movements and campaigns such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and environmental protesters as “selfish” and “immoral”.

Good Morning Britain host Richard Madeley described the climate group Insulate Britain’s actions as “disgusting.”

Refugees and working class families are divided between the deserving and undeserving, with the latter branded as scroungers.

But is it moral for our rulers to remain idle as catastrophic climate change endangers billions of people, particularly in the Global South? Or avoid tax and hand over contracts to their billionaire friends?

Soon after the British invasion of Afghanistan 20 years ago, then prime minister Tony Blair attempted to justify his bombing campaign as the “moral” thing to do.

He falsely branded his campaign as one that would liberate women and children from militant Islamists.


Anti-war campaigners and socialists argued that the invasion and subsequent murder of hundreds of thousands of people was completely immoral.

What’s moral and what’s not depends on which side of the class war you are on.

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky addressed the question in his pamphlet, Their Morals and Ours.

He argued that morals and ethics vary due to the different interests and material conditions of socio-economic classes.

The ruling class tries to impose its concept of morality onto the working class as a way of curbing and exploiting them, and restricting forms of resistance.

The people at the top of society make a vast effort through the education system, the media and some religious ideas to drive home an image of a “good citizen”.

They are part of a “hard working family”—a term loved by politicians—and are ceaselessly engaged in an effort to better themselves in material terms and to consume. They compete from an early age for exam success and then a “career path”.

And they don’t make trouble. All of this fits with producing fuel for the profit machine.

The ruling class’s version of morality allows it to excuse imperialist rivalries, interventions and wars.

Trotsky argued that ­capitalism could never survive without the foundation of abstract morality. Morality allows capitalists to attack the actions of a movement to ­undermine and distract from their end goal, and reflects the ruling class’ interests.

In 2020 the explosion of the BLM movement onto the streets addressed structural racism within the police and society as a whole.

Right wing politicians and newspapers condemned the “immoral actions” of a few ­protesters who looted and ­damaged property.

But in turn, the ruling class and right wing “moralists” defended a system of brutality and racism that allows black people to die at the hands of police at a disproportionate rate. They ignore that their system is built on the looting and colonisation of countries across the world.

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Trotsky said, “A slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains—let not the ­contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!”

He was arguing that true morality will be represented by the working class and will defend the interests of humanity.

The issue of when violence is justified sums up much of the class nature of morality. Politicians of all stripes venerate the military, awash with the latest technology of mass murder.

British and US forces exterminated a million people in Iraq and devastated the country. But that’s officially sanctioned and justified.

Every day nuclear weapons threaten the annihilation of humanity—they are part of a “defence” programme that most mainstream parties in Britain support.

But then the ruling class hoards the monopoly of violence for its state forces. It says that anyone else who uses violence against property or people is a thug or a terrorist.

State violence maintains and protects a system of exploitation, sexism and racism. It shields a world where the rich thrive and tens of thousands of the poor die every day from poverty.

Defeating that violent system sometimes requires violence. Slavery wasn’t ended just by the mass abolition movements, important though they were.

It crucially took a series of very violent rebellions by slaves themselves, such as the Haitian revolt that broke the slavers. And in the US slavery came to an end after a bloody civil war.

There are similar examples from the battles against British colonialism, the fight for women’s votes or the struggle to break apartheid in South Africa.

In all these cases violence was never the single or even the dominant method of struggle. But it was part of the resistance.

Today, faced with the horror of the multi-headed climate crisis, is it really immoral to attack the oil and gas pipelines that are integral to the fossil fuel economy?

The protesters at Standing Rock in Dakota, US, used every peaceful means open to them and raised awareness of the issues they faced.

They were met with attack dogs, water cannon, mass arrests and tear gas—and the pipeline still operates today.


Palestinians have the right to fight with guns in their hands against the violence and oppression of the Israeli state.

And to defeat a system headed by people who will stop at nothing to defend it will eventually require an insurrection that will involve a measure of violence.

This isn’t to wallow in violence as a method or to always see it as a correct tactic. Mass movements are essential.

Revolutionary Malcolm X and other black liberation fighters subscribed to this idea by ­fighting for liberation and justice “by any means necessary”.

But Trotsky explained, “A means can be justified only by its end. But the end in its turn needs to be justified.”

It’s a two-way relationship with the end result equally shaping the means.” Socialists want a world that gives power to the vast majority in society, for them to decide democratically how to use the resources they have.

Achieving that means ordinary people taking part in their own liberation. As Karl Marx put it, “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”. Methods that divert away from that aim are not going to lead to the desired end of ­working class freedom.

This end is only possible if working class people learn about their potential strength in class unity, as well as about how to fight, the need to combat oppression, who their allies are and who their enemies are.

That’s only possible on a mass scale though struggle.

The bomber, the “left” MP and the military of some supposedly progressive government all say they will substitute ­themselves for the actions of working class people.

They cut people off from the crucial understandings that emerge in strikes, occupations and mass demonstrations.

Trotsky argued that during class struggle only those means used that united the mass of workers should be used. These would “fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression”.

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He said, “Not all means are permissible”. For example, to fight for working class emancipation we can’t use means or tactics that breed more oppression.

The ultimate working class morality is to use the means that strengthen the possibility of the collective overthrow of capitalism.

Trotsky wrote, “The ­moralist continues to insist, ‘does it mean that in the class struggle against capitalists all means are permissible, lying, frame-up, betrayal, murder, and so on?’”

“Are the given means really capable of leading to the goal?” Trotsky replies.

“In relation to individual terror, both theory and experience bear witness that such is not the case.

“To the terrorist we say, it is impossible to replace the masses, only in the mass ­movement can you find expedient expression for your heroism.

“However, under conditions of civil war, the assassination of individual oppressors ceases to be an act of individual terror. If we shall say, a revolutionist bombed General Franco and his staff into the air, it would hardly evoke moral indignation.

“Thus, even in the sharpest question—murder of man by man—moral absolutes prove futile.”

Revolutionary socialists’ understanding of morality begins and ends with an ­understanding of the need to destroy capitalist society.

Capitalism is an inherently immoral system that relies on prejudice, violence, poverty, fossil fuels, imperialism and war.

It is the role of revolutionaries to break down ruling class arguments about what is and is not moral. Our understanding of moralism should be based on the immorality of capitalism and our fight for working class emancipation. Not on the contradictory morals our rulers seek to impose on us.

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