mick hume on 'their morals and ours'

NIBS nibs at nibs.org.au
Tue Dec 10 23:54:43 MST 2002

Mick Hume was once editor of Living Marxism (or LM, as it became), a
magazine that enjoyed a certain notoriety on the left a few years ago.
LM responded to the low level of class struggle during the eighties and
ninties by declaring the working class to be no longer a historical force
and hence the real contradiction in society to be  between those who
believed in the possibility of human progress and those who did not. Or
something like that.
Anyway, they then applied their insight to each and every issue under the
sun, becoming more and more bizarre as time went on. By the end, they were
finding common ground with fox hunters and tobacco lobbyists and other
assorted oddballs.
Still,  it was kinda diverting for a while. Hume now edits a mag called
Spiked, which, as far as I can see, runs the same line today, and so is
about as entertaining as an Adam Sandler movie.
The stuff below appeared on Arts and Letters. I wondered what he would do
in a review of something as boringly Marxist as <Their Morals and Ours>.
The answer, of course, is exactly what he does with everything else...

Jeff Sparrow

Their Morals and Ours
Leon Trotsky
ISBN 0873483197

Reviewed by Mick Hume
Discount price: £0.00

This piece should probably begin with the disclaimer "I'm not a Trotskyist,
but . . ." Talking to other journalists about my past life as editor of the
late Living Marxism magazine, an intelligent Tory (that is to say, he no
longer works for the party) asked me: "Which end of the ice pick were you
in the old days?" In other words, did my sympathies lie with Leon Trotsky,
or with the Stalinists who assassinated him using that tool? There wasn't
supposed to be any "third way" on the left.

And I was always staunchly anti-Stalinist. Indeed, part of the rationale
for launching a magazine called Living Marxism at the end of the cold war
(marketing never having been my strong suit) was to suggest that there
could be an alternative to the dead Soviet system.

Yet I was never part of the student politics that passed for "the
Trotskyist tradition", either. Not all anti-Stalinists could get excited
about the endless debate over whether the Soviet Union was "state
capitalist" or a "degenerated workers' state" - the modern equivalent of
that old theological dispute over how many angels could dance on the head
of a pin (there were a few pinheads in this one, too). Some of us were even
less enamoured of the infantile Trot attitude towards the Labour Party,
whereby the naughty children blew raspberries at their parent, but only
until it was time to run home for their tea (meaning, campaign for Labour
in an election).

So no, I am not a Trotskyist. Yet, ignoring the inanities of his acolytes,
and all the issues about his role in the Soviet Union, when I read the
writings of the man himself 20-odd years ago, they did help to open naive
eyes with some insights that still serve a purpose. Trotsky's Writings on
Britain, for instance, taught me the iron law of history: that the Labour
Party could never hope to change the world while it lacked the guts to deny
the Prince of Wales his "pocket money". The collection Art and Culture cuts
through much of today's "conceptual bullshit" on cultural issues,
ridiculing the notion of judging the arts by political standards (an area
where new Labour has more in common with Stalinism than it might
comfortably admit).

However, the work that struck the student Hume hardest was probably Their
Morals and Ours, a slim volume written during the mid-1930s while Trotsky
was exiled from the Soviet Union. Against the background of Stalin's show
trials, the rise of fascism, the Spanish civil war and the approach of the
Second World War, it provided a response to the allegation that "Trotskyism
is as bad as Stalinism". As such, it is irrelevant today. None of these
once-heated debates could matter much now to anybody but the political
equivalent of a stamp collector.

But the final few pages still echo. There, Trotsky threw down a challenge
to the notion that any absolute - what he called "eternal morals" - could
guide human action. Reading it at a time when Margaret Thatcher's Tory
government was selling its policies as a moral crusade, I found this all
too relevant to the world in which I lived.

As Trotsky pointed out, what a given society considers good and moral
changes with shifting social and historical contexts; today's crime is
tomorrow's convention (as with the law on abortion). Morality, presented as
an abstract universal, more often serves sectional interests. And most
moralists treat their tablets of stone as flexible friends when
circumstances demand. Thus both church and state will find the commandment
"Thou shall not kill" expedient in time of war. As Trotsky wrote: "They
require special codes of morals, durable, and at the same time elastic,
like good suspenders."

Accused of being an amoralist who always believed that the ends justified
the means, Trotsky responded that a "means can be justified only by its
end. But the end in turn needs to be justified." And how was anybody to
decide if something was morally justified? "The end is justified," he
continued, "if it leads to increasing the power of humanity over nature and
the abolition of the power of one person over another . . . That is
permissible which really leads to the liberation of humanity. Whether
something is morally supportable should depend on whether it passes that
test in the specific circumstances of the day, rather than according to
some timeless commandments."

Much of Their Morals and Ours reads today like an ancient history of
defunct sects, and sadly, much is almost as boring. Yet the book's message
about the social and historical basis of morality is worth remembering. We
live in times of moral confusion, amid the collapse of traditional values.
To judge by the state of public debate, there is no obvious "right" answer,
or moral consensus, on questions ranging from road-building and genetic
engineering to war and porn. As for the issue of terrorism, an
old-fashioned debate about ends and means is irrelevant when nobody has
even admitted what nihilistic ends the 11 September or Bali atrocities were
supposed to achieve.

With the loss of the old political landmarks, many try to make sense of
today by posing their demands in moralistic terms. What should be political
debates become instead an unsavoury scramble for the moral high ground.

The left-right debates or class divides of Trotsky's time mean little in
politics now. New divisions are taking shape, perhaps most importantly
between those who champion progress and change and those who resist it.
Every argument against change is posed in moral terms, whether it be about
our duty to conserve the environment or the alleged dangers of embryo
research. The supposedly ethical argument seems always to be the
conservative one for restraint, aiming to put a brake on scientific or
social advance.

Yet by the standards that Trotsky acknowledged in very different
circumstances, the progressive view remains the moral one, especially if it
"leads to increasing the power of humanity over nature and the abolition of
the power of one person over another".

I'm not a Trotskyist, but the idea of a human-centred morality is still
central to all that I believe today.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked

Jeff Sparrow
New International Book Co-operative
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Box 18
54 Victoria St
Carlton Sth 3053
Mon-Fri 9am-6.30 pm Sat 11am-5pm
tel 03 9662 3744 fax 03 9662 4755

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who say George Bush him don't have no aim
a search fi Bin Laden and searching in vain
now them waan turn it pon saddam hussein
so me find out say this is an oil game
find out say Babylon a use dem brain
righteousness the ghetto youths sustain


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