You might say Leon Trotsky was the “best” of the old Bolsheviks. He was smart, was familiar with the work of a host of important thinkers beyond the usual Marx and Hegel, and wrote in a style that was a great deal more entertaining than the cock-sure, “scientific” certainties of Lenin or the quasi-liturgical screeds of Stalin. He also had a very rational understanding of morality, right up to the point where his embrace of Marxism forced him to stumble across the is-ought divide. He set down his essential thought on the subject in an essay entitled Their Morals and Ours, which appeared in the June 1938 edition of The New International.
Trotsky begins by jettisoning objective morality, summarizing in a nutshell a truth that is perfectly obvious to religious believers but that atheist moralists so often seem unable to grasp:
Let us admit for the moment that neither personal nor social ends can justify the means. Then it is evidently necessary to seek criteria outside of historical society and those ends which arise in its development. But where? If not on earth, then in the heavens. In divine revelation popes long ago discovered faultless moral criteria. Petty secular popes speak about eternal moral truths without naming their original source. However, we are justified in concluding: since these truths are eternal, they should have existed not only before the appearance of half-monkey-half-man upon the earth but before the evolution of the solar system. Whence then did they arise? The theory of eternal morals can in nowise survive without god.
It is a tribute to the power of human moral emotions that the Sam Harris school of atheists continue doggedly concocting “scientific” theories of morality in spite of this simple and seemingly self-evident truth. It follows immediately on rejection of the God hypothesis. In spite of that, legions of atheists reject it because they “feel in their bones” that the chimeras of Good and Evil that Mother Nature has seen fit to dangle before their eyes must be real. It just can’t be that all their noble ideals are mere artifacts of evolution, and so they continue tinkering on their hopeless systems as the “ignorant” religious fundamentalists smirk in the background.
The very title of Trotsky’s essay reveals that he understood another fundamental aspect of human morality – its dual nature. In spite of approaching the subject via Marx instead of Darwin, he understood the difference between ingroups and outgroups. In the jargon of Marxism, these became “classes.” Thus, Trotsky’s ingroup was the proletariat, and his outgroup the bourgeoisie, and he found the notion that identical moral criteria should be applied to “oppressors” and “oppressed” alike absurd:
Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.
Let us note in justice that the most sincere and at the same time the most limited petty bourgeois moralists still live even today in the idealized memories of yesterday and hope for its return. They do not understand that morality is a function of the class struggle; that democratic morality corresponds to the epoch of liberal and progressive capitalism; that the sharpening of the class struggle in passing through its latest phase definitively and irrevocably destroyed this morality; that in its place came the morality of fascism on one side, on the other the morality of proletarian revolution.
Trotsky was quite familiar with Darwinian explanations of morality. One might say that, like so many Marxists who came after him, he was a “Blank Slater,” but certainly not in the same rigid, dogmatic sense as the later versions who denied the very existence of human behavioral predispositions. He allowed that there might be such a thing as “human nature,” but only to the extent that it didn’t get in the way of the proper development of “history.” For example,
But do not elementary moral precepts exist, worked out in the development of mankind as an integral element necessary for the life of every collective body? Undoubtedly such precepts exist but the extent of their action is extremely limited and unstable. Norms “obligatory upon all” become the less forceful the sharper the character assumed by the class struggle. The highest pitch of the class struggle is civil war which explodes into mid-air all moral ties between the hostile classes.
He didn’t realize that these “elementary moral precepts” were just as capable of accommodating the Marxist “classes” as ingroups and outgroups as they are of enabling more “natural” perceptions of one’s own clan of hunter-gatherers and the next one over in the same roles. His conclusion that these “precepts” were relatively unimportant in the overall scheme of things was reinforced by the fact that he was also familiar with and had a predictable allergic reaction to the work of those who derived imaginary, quasi-objective and un-Marxist “natural laws” from “human nature”:
Moralists of the Anglo-Saxon type, in so far as they do not confine themselves to rationalist utilitarianism, the ethics of bourgeois bookkeeping, appear conscious or unconscious students of Viscount Shaftesbury, who at the beginning of the 18th century deduced moral judgments from a special “moral sense” supposedly once and for all given to man.
The “evolutionary” utilitarianism of Spencer likewise abandons us half-way without an answer, since, following Darwin, it tries to dissolve the concrete historical morality in the biological needs or in the “social instincts” characteristic of a gregarious animal, and this at a time when the very understanding of morality arises only in an antagonistic milieu, that is, in a society torn by classes.
Other than the concocters of “natural law,” there was another powerful barrier in the way of Trotsky’s grasping the fundamental significance of his “elementary moral precepts” – his own, powerful moral emotions. According to his autobiography, these manifested themselves at a very young age as powerful reactions to what he perceived as the oppression of the weak by the strong. As Jonathan Haidt might have predicted, they were concentrated in the “Care/harm,” “Liberty/oppression,” and “Fairness/cheating” “foundations” of morality described in his The Righteous Mind as characteristic of the ideologues of the Left. It was inconceivable to Trotsky that the ultimate cause of these exalted emotions was to be found in a subset of the evolved behavioral traits of our species that have no “purpose,” and exist purely because they happened to increase the odds that his ancestors would survive and reproduce. And so it was that, as noted above, he skipped cheerfully across the is-ought divide, hardly noticing that he’d even crossed the line. At the end of the essay we discover that this sober rejecter of all absolute and objective moralities has somehow discovered a magical philosopher’s stone that enabled him to distinguish “higher” from “lower” moralities:
To a revolutionary Marxist there can be no contradiction between personal morality and the interests of the party, since the party embodies in his consciousness the very highest tasks and aims of mankind… Does it not seem that “amoralism” in the given case is only a pseudonym for higher human morality?
Not all will reach that shore, many will drown. But to participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will – only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being!
Let us say that it provided Trotsky with moral satisfaction, and leave it at that. It is certainly easier to forgive him for such a non sequitur than the more puritanical among the New Atheists of today, who have witnessed the collapse of the Blank Slate, can have no excuse for failing to understand where morality “comes from,” and yet still insist on edifying the rest of us with their freshly minted universal and “scientific” moral systems.
As it happens, there is a poignant footnote to Trotsky’s essay. Even at the time he wrote it, he probably knew in his heart of hearts that his earthly god had failed. By then, he could only maintain his defiant faith in Marxism by some convoluted theoretical revisions that must have seemed implausible to a man of his intelligence. According to the dogma of his “Fourth International,” the Bolshevik coup of 1917 had, indeed, been a genuine proletarian revolution. However, soon after seizing power, the proletariat had somehow gone to sleep, and allowed the sly bourgeoisie to regain control, using Stalin as their tool. The historical precedent for this remarkable historical double back flip was the Thermidorian reaction of the French Revolution. As all good Marxists know, this had ended in the defeat of Robespierre and the Jacobins, who were the “real revolutionaries,” by the dark minions of the ancien regime. A more realistic interpretation of the events of 9 Thermidor is that it was a logical response on the part of perfectly sensible men to the realization that, if they did nothing, they were sure to be the next victims of Madame Guillotine. No matter, like the pastor of some tiny fundamentalist sect who insists that only his followers are “true Christians,” and only they will go to heaven, Trotsky insisted that only his followers were the “true revolutionaries” of 1917.
The fact that he took such license with Marxist dogma didn’t prevent Trotsky from grasping what was going on in the 1930’s much more clearly than the “parlor pink” Stalinist apologists of the time. Here’s what he had to say about he Duranty school of Stalinist stooges:
The King’s Counselor, Pritt, who succeeded with timeliness in peering under the chiton of the Stalinist Themis and there discovered everything in order, took upon himself the shameless initiative. Romain Rolland, whose moral authority is highly evaluated by the Soviet publishing house bookkeepers, hastened to proclaim one of his manifestos where melancholy lyricism unites with senile cynicism. The French League for the Rights of Man, which thundered about the “amoralism of Lenin and Trotsky” in 1917 when they broke the military alliance with France, hastened to screen Stalin’s crimes in 1936 in the interests of the Franco-Soviet pact. A patriotic end justifies, as is known, any means. The Nation and The New Republic closed their eyes to Yagoda’s exploits since their “friendship” with the U.S.S.R. guaranteed their own authority. Yet only a year ago these gentlemen did not at all declare Stalinism and Trotskyism to be one and the same. They openly stood for Stalin, for his realism, for his justice and for his Yagoda. They clung to this position as long as they could.
Until the moment of the execution of Tukhachevsky, Yakir, and the others, the big bourgeoisie of the democratic countries, not without pleasure, though blanketed with fastidiousness, watched the execution of the revolutionists in the U.S.S.R. In this sense The Nation and The New Republic, not to speak of Duranty, Louis Fischer, and their kindred prostitutes of the pen, fully responded to the interests of “democratic” imperialism. The execution of the generals alarmed the bourgeoisie, compelling them to understand that the advanced disintegration of the Stalinist apparatus lightened the tasks of Hitler, Mussolini and the Mikado. The New York Times cautiously but insistently began to correct its own Duranty.
Those who don’t understand what Trotsky is getting at with his imputations of Stalinism regarding The Nation and The New Republic need only read a few back issues of those magazines from the mid to late 1930’s. It won’t take them long to get the point.
Even if the gallant old Bolshevik still firmly believed in his own revisions of Marxism in 1938, there can be little doubt that the scales had fallen from his eyes shortly before Stalin had him murdered in 1940. By then, World War II was already underway. In an essay that appeared in his last book, a collection of essays entitled In Defense of Marxism, he wrote,
If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative; the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signaling the eclipse of civilization… Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale… If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.
The assassin who ended Trotsky’s life with an ice pick was perhaps the most merciful of Stalin’s many executioners. There could have been little joy for the old Bolshevik in witnessing the bloody dictator’s triumph in 1945, and the final collapse of all his glorious dreams.