Morality, Violence and Marxism

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Thu Jun 8 10:08:56 MDT 1995

In response to the numerous, and multiplying, threads on these topics:
1. The term 'ethical relativism' is something of a misnomer for some of the
positions that have been put forward in these discussions. It elevates to the
level of philosophical doctrine a crude, thoughtless position which might be
better described simply as a 'double standard' or even the lack of any
meaningful ethical standard. What else can be said of the view that the
Panthers are beyond criticism because for one historical moment they
resonated in the African-American and Latino communities? Should we ignore
the evidence -- in personal testimony and balanced scholarly investigation --
of every type of abuse of the values to which the organization professed
allegiance, from outright murder downward, because we do not want to confront
disturbing facts? Are we supposed to bury the information of a drug crazed
Huey Newton raping Bobby Seale because it doesn't fit into our mythology of
the history of the American Left? A contemporary American left which refuses
to come to grips with its own history, and the abuses within that history,
will leave that terrain to the right, and will continue to consign itself to
2. One of the issues in the history of the Panthers -- and the American left
of this period -- that begs for careful, considered evaluation is the
romanticization of violence. The slogan "off the pig" is just one symptomatic
expression of this central theme, and the threads surrounding  Mumia
Abu-Jamal and the "irrelevancy" of whether or not he actually committed a
murder is an especially mindless manifestation of this amoral
romanticization. For all of the revolutionary posturing that goes on here,
what we have is a continuation and elevation of some of the worst of
mainstream American culture -- which is far more violent than any comparative
advanced capitalist society. Does the 'materialism' invoked here forbid an
analysis of role of violence in American society because it does not occur at
the "point of production?" If so, it shows the profound bankruptcy of such an
3. Perhaps it is because I live and work in the context of an inner city
where violence is the overriding, inescapable social reality, the major
social problem that stands in the way of all meaningful social progress,  but
I find these discussions entirely removed from the real political problems
before us. The pretension that 'revolutionary violence' is in any way an
issue that the American left needs to deal with at this point is fantasy
politics, reminiscent of the flights of political hallucination most of us
happily left behind over twenty years ago. Frankly, although I am not a
pacifist, I believe that the doctrines of non-violence have more relevance to
our contemporary situation than the reenactments of the most self-deluded and
self-destructive moments of the American left. If the first time is tragedy,
and the second time farce, just what the hell is the tenth and twentieth
4. The notion that there are two "moral" standards, and that virtually
everything -- from violence to murder to capital punishment -- which takes
place in the "service" of the working class and the revolution is morally
defensible is not simply a morally bankrupt position. It is -- whether it
appears in openly Stalinist, or Trotskyist, or Anarchist garb -- the first
and most basic foundation of political authoritarianism. It is the first step
on the way to the gulag and the concentration camp, to "sweeping away" the
kulaks and all others who stand in the way, all in the "service" of the
5. Rather than relying of Trotsky's crude and primitive text on the subject
of Marxism and morality, a text useful only in showing the extent of his
affinity with fundamental Stalinist principles, we might want to reference
the far more thoughtful body of literature which exists. Merleau-Ponty's
Humanism and Terror makes a far more impressive and serious case for
revolutionary violence than Trotsky, although there is the inconvenience that
Mearleau-Ponty himself later broke with that position. The works of Camus,
among others, provided powerful critiques of Mearleau-Ponty's position. In
contemporary scholarship, one can not avoid Stephen Lukes' powerful text,
Marxism and Morality, in which he argues -- verry pesuasively in my view --
that Marx's writings lack a moral and ethical theory, and that leave the door
open for the authoritarian amorality of the Marxism of a Trotsky and a
Stalin. Contrary views can be found in Richard Miller's Analyzing Marx:
Morality, Power and History and Allen Wood's Karl Marx.
6. Finally, if we examine historical moments in which revolutionary violence
would be justified on general principles (the slave South and apartheid South
Africa, to give two of the more indisputable examples), I would suggest that
even under these condtions there must be an efficacy test -- acts of violent
rebellion without any reasonable hope of success only brings down repression
on those already oppressed, and are not morally justified.

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