Class War and Ethics
Translated: by JB Askew from the Neue Zeit, November 24, 1900;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Part 1 of two articles is taken from Social Democrat, 1900, Vol. 4, No. 12, Dec. 1900, pp. 364-372 and Part 2 from Vol. 5 No. 2, Feb 1901, pp. 50-57. It has been argued that these two articles have been superseded by Kautsky’s 1906 book on Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History.
In No. 4 of Vol. 10 of Socialen Praxis we find an article of the well known “ethical” Dr. F. V. Forster, on “Social-Democracy and Ethics; a New Chapter from English Municipal Socialism.”
As it is to be expected that our opponents should seize hold of the problems he raises, and the assertions which he makes, in order to play them off against us, we will examine the question more nearly. We give the article in full in order to add some comments to it. It runs:
“Some time ago I had in London a meeting with William Sanders, one of the most able and strong-minded English Labour leaders. He has, as secretary of the Independent Labour Party, worked ton years along with John Burns to secure for the workers an effective representation in the municipal government. The work of both men was crowned with success. The worker in Battersea has, even down to the street scavengers, a decent wage. The working-class has a decisive influence on the municipal government, and thereby indirectly on the social demeanour of the private employer. [Presumably election times are meant. – Trans.] More and more the municipalities are getting used to employ direct labour wherever possible without calling in a contractor. So much more incomprehensible must it be that Sanders gave up his previous position and went over to the ethical movement, to devote his time and energies to that. When I asked him what were the grounds for his step, he answered me, more or less, as follows: –
“‘I joined your movement because it became clearer to me every day that the workers, the more they acquired power, were confronted with such serious moral temptations and such a tremendous political task that, in itself, the mere appeal to class consciousness or to material advantages is proved to be an absolutely insufficient basis for a real agitation. What our working-class want to-day before all things are not new programmes or so-called practical measures. Englishmen have had enough of the “practical” – what we want is a new spiritual force which would stir the masses and awake needs in them which are not met by the mere satisfying of hunger. We need a fresh motive.
“‘As at the end of the eighties the great industrial crisis broke over England, Burns and I believed that the contrast between rich and poor would become still more striking and that the inauguration of Socialism was imminent. We made it our duty to prepare and introduce the new society through the socialisation of municipal corporations. To-day we see a new middle class arising out of the midst of the working class itself, and that it would be idle to base any hope for a reformation of society on the hunger instincts of a degraded class. Some years ago the Boilermakers’ Society invested property to the extent of £30,000 in the shares of an important iron works, which notoriously exploited their employees. That caused us to think. We saw a new problem arise out of the economic development. How could we secure even the educated and cultured sections of the working class from the degeneration into profit-hunting and a satisfied indifference, and win all its moral and economic strength for the work of organisation?
“‘In addition came another observation which puzzled us and showed that the problem of democracy is much more difficult and complicated than we had first imagined if. You know that it is England’s pride that in our administration the corruption of American administration has not yet found entry – as, for example, it is incorporated in the democrat Croker, who regards it as quite natural that the party in power should use their political influence for personal enrichment. To our horror we have nevertheless recently, in the first instance in our field of Battersea, had forced on our attention how in the developing governing power of the masses the beginnings of democratic corruption began to be apparent. The municipal employees seek to exploit their position as voters in order to gain from the public purse much higher wages than are laid down by the trade unions of the trades concerned, or than one would ask at any time from the best employers. The consequences would be that the combined taxpayers of the district would then be more heavily taxed to pay this extra wage. In a word, the community is regarded, to use the words of an influential labour leader, as a lemon to squeeze.’
“‘So far Sanders. At that time what he saw was a small cloud on the horizon of the labour democracy. To-day the phenomenon has become so clear that wider circles begin to interest themselves with if, and at a recent meeting of Socialist agitators and labour representatives the matter came openly to discussion under the title, “The Difficulties of a Labour Majority.” The district, West Ham, was under discussion, where the majority had introduced the eight hour day, a minimum wage of 37s. per week, direct employment by the Municipality and other points of the labour programme, to the benefit of the town workers. Instead of these achievements raising the conscientiousness of the employees, it must be stated that these employees looked upon their representatives in the Town Council as a kind of silent accomplice in order to extract from the public the greatest possible sum for their own benefit. In principle, this is just the same as that which has made Tammany Hall in New York so bad a reputation: The using of political power to rob the public purse. It can be understood that English Socialist leaders are paying great attention to these beginnings, since it is a question of the first trial of democratic control in the municipal administration, and a failure could compromise the whole business and bring a dangerous reaction. Hitherto luckily the English labour movement had a leader so respected and of so strong a character as John Burns, who, with great moral energy, resisted all attempts to use political power and political connections to gain extra benefits. But what will happen when John Burns is no longer there? How will the democratic development be protected from that dangerous temptation? Imagine that continually more undertakings are taken over by the community, and that then the labourers concerned use their political powers, in order to extract a profit from their influence at the cost of the orderly general development. What a prospect of corruption opens itself there.’
“I believe that Mr. Sanders is right, when he in face of these beginnings expressly lays stress on the fact, which is here proved, that the labour movement can make no progress with the simple class-war theory and the simple appeal to class spirit. The moral isolation of the rising working class from the rest of the community must necessarily not only cripple the sense of right in the masses, but produce in them that double morality which makes them incapable at the given moment in the face of the community of conscientiously fulfilling their duty.
“Sanders says rightly in the Ethical World: –
‘The working-class leaders have a critical time before them. The preaching of the class war may be an excellent means to bring together hungry masses in times of depression, but this kind of propaganda is not capable of securing us the self-sacrificing and strong-minded worker in the service of the community, who sees how inseparably his position is bound up with a big cause. Much more will this propaganda of a short-sighted conception prepare the ground that the worker, with his endeavour to get as much as possible out of the community and to give as little as possible in return, should take his revenge, so to say, on the classes who have hitherto deprived him of his right to leisure, pleasure, treasure. The simple appeal to class interest has only proved itself effective where purely individual interests were at stake. But if the highest ideal of the labour movement is to take root in the heart of the working class, we need a propaganda which talks not only of rights, but also of duties ... We require the most, unbending resignation of all labour representatives to the ethical side of their mission ...,
‘The development pointed out by W. Sanders will assuredly progress and then open the eyes of even the blindest to the fact that a thorough ethicalising of the Socialist propaganda – in their general assumptions as well as in their entire jargon-constitutes the truest statesmanship of the movement and the fundamental class interest of the workers. It was only natural that the labour movement in the first stage of their emancipation repudiated moral tradition and phrases, and based their tactics absolutely on the actual social conditions and tendencies. Experience and observation of this actual life itself will bring them once more, step by step, to a rediscovery of ethics, so far as man, through the insight into the conditions of social rebirth and the needs o£ the social organism, is confronted by the need of the ethical factors, and sees that politics and ethics are not to be separated, because ethical forces are themselves political forces, which means that they are of decisive importance in the formation of political institutions in general.
“Certainly in Germany them can be as yet no question of the ‘difficulties of a labour majority’ in communal administration. And yet one dare say to the growing labour movement ‘De to agitur’ (it concerns you). Even by us will labour majorities some time stand before the same abyss which now yawns before the representatives of the English movement. Let them be prepared in time, that the rise of the’ Fourth Estate’ stands under the banner of that same ethical force to which alone they can entrust the later practical development. Anyone who, for the sake of momentary success, lets loose the simple instincts of power, and where possible, also rancour and animosity, will later not get free from the spirits which he has invoked. That applies also to certain ‘Handbooks of Home Politics,’ which, again, propagate the idea of political might as the sole basis of political action. I am of opinion that the above-described English crisis shows only too clearly that the problems of modern civilisation are much too complicated to be solved in the atmosphere of mutual over-reaching and force. That for the next step may appear to be the simplest means, but a policy cannot be conducted on a ‘hand-to-mouth’ style, and every action must be brought into harmony with a wide conception of the conditions of human development and the mutual relations of life. By this means alone is a sound policy arrived at and – ethics applied.”
The conclusion of the article we cordially endorse. Certainly a policy cannot be based on a hand-to-mouth principle, but every action must be brought into harmony with a wide conception of the conditions of human development and the mutual relations of life, even at the peril that this subordination of the policy of the moment under the general principle, the agitation of the moment to the final aim, will be ridiculed as a perverse fanaticism for dogma, and as arcadian utopianism from the practical politicians and men of sound common sense.
As far as the facts are concerned, which Dr. Forster brings forward, we must, in the first place, explain that he has made a bad mistake. Mr. Sanders was never a member, much less secretary, of the I.L.P.; he was only secretary of the Battersea Labour Party, a labour organisation which limits its activity to the London district, and is for English Socialists a quite unimportant person, as my London friends whom I asked about this, to me, unknown man, inform me.
To the same informants it was also quite unknown that the experiences of Battersea and West Ham gave well-grounded occasion to sniff out once more a new problem of Socialism.
Even in the year 1897 C. Hugo, in his book on “Stadtverwaltung und Munizipal Sozialismus in England” (“Town Government and Municipal Socialism in England”), only knew of favourable results to report, which the London County Council had achieved with the carrying out of municipal works under its own administration, Certainly contrary opinions are well known to us, but they came from opponents or pessimists to whom every difficulty that arises, yea, every objection of an opponent, appears at once as a serious peril to our progress.
Meanwhile, we will, for once in a way, accept that the municipal employees of England, where labour rules in the community, in fact develops into a selfish and corrupt exploiter of the public purse.
But what we do most decidedly deny is the connection of this phenomenon with the class war, and first of all its connection with the theory of the class war.
If ever there were labour elements which were against the theory of the class war, it would be the aristocracy of the English labour world – just that class with which we are here concerned. Are not the English workers, from all the harmony apostles and ethical national economists, continually brought before us as patterns? As a matter of fact, they adopted the Liberal theory that the opposition between wage-labourer and capitalist was no other than that which arises between every buyer and seller of a commodity. But the seller and buyer constitute no special class, since everyone is at one time seller of a commodity, and at another time buyer.
The opposition between the wage-labourers in a shoe factory and the manufacturer is from this point of view not essentially different from the opposition between the latter and the seller of leather. Certainly the worker wants to sell his labour as dear as possible, but that also the leather dealer wishes to do with his leather. There arises on this account no class conflict between the leather dealer and the shoe manufacturer.
On the other hand the shoe manufacturer is unaffected when the price of engines rises. It is equally indifferent to the workman in a shoe factory what the wage in a machine factory ie. Indeed, the wages of the packer and the office-boy, as well as the clerk in his own factory, do not affect him. Class solidarity and antagonism of classes are only phrases of the Social Democrats invented for the sake of agitation. A sensible workman will not allow himself to be fooled by them. He has only one duty, like every seller of a bogey to his liberal and ethical foster-parents, and for the very reason because he too faithfully follows their teaching and bas thrown overboard Socialist thinking and feeling. We were told by our Anglomaniacs that the English worker has more power than any, and is the nearest to Socialism – naturally only the “practical” – and now we find that those classes, who were not to be had for Socialism, are also untrue to Liberalism, and have gone over to the Conservative camp, because the Conservatives as ruling party had more to offer. Thus the English pattern-boy becomes a prop of reaction, after Brentano has already admitted with pain that the English worker, so far as he is proof against Socialism, supports in thoughtless enthusiasm the barbarian policy of the jingoes – the same policy, it is to be noted, which the high ethical professors [among them Brentano. – Trans.] seek to make palatable to the workers in Germany. And now come in addition the difficulties which the English labour aristocrat – at least according to Messrs. Sanders and Forster – prepares for municipal Socialism.
It is, indeed, heartbreaking.
But Dr, Forster will not allow himself to be put out of countenance, and with a fixity which does all honour to his ethics, he extracts from the bad experiences which have been made with the English labour aristocrats, a moral for the German Social-Democracy, to whom he calls out, “De te agitur” and for the Marxism whose class-war theory is responsible for the fact that the English labour aristocracy shares or imitates the usual bourgeois corruption of the English communal administration. These corrupt practices of the working-class, according to Dr. Forster, spring up there, where a labouring class standing on the ground of the class-war theory attains a certain amount of “industrial democracy.” But have we not already got that kind of “industrial democracy” in France, Belgium, Germany, together with the theory of the class war, but without the phenomena complained of by Messrs. Sanders and Forster? Is not every German workers’ co-operative society a piece of “industrial democracy"? But if complaints are heard about these societies it is not that their employees demand extra privileges at the cost of the community and use their voting power to obtain them.
Also from the Belgian co-operative distributive societies, which in the production of iron also are already farther advanced, we hear no complaints about the excessive demands of the workers. And the same may be said of those French municipalities where the Socialists have obtained a majority.
Therefore, just there where the theory of the class-war has taken the deepest root, are heard no complaints about the labourer in trades where a mass of class-conscious workers comes forward as employer. None of our comrades feels himself compelled, on the ground of his bad experiences with the workers, to go over from the party to an ethical society.
Why should the theory of the class-war have such a bad effect?
Mr. Sanders says he has become an “ethical” and Dr. Forster writes about “Social-Democracy and Ethics” because both believe the appeal to class-consciousness is an appeal to “material benefits,” to purely individual and selfish interests,” and he implies a propaganda “which speaks only of rights and not of duties.”
These gentlemen, have, therefore, no suspicion of the fact that the class-consciousness is the consciousness of the solidarity of all proletarians, that to propagate class-consciousness means nothing else than to propagate the knowledge of the duties which the individual owes to the whole of his class. Have Messrs. Sanders and Forster never heard of the unmentionable sacrifices which the class-conscious proletariat undergo not for “purely individual and selfish interests,” but for the cause of their class, not only of their own country but of all civilised countries. In any case, the class-conscious proletariat have disdained to hawk about with their ethic, but they have starved, suffered want, sacrificed their night and Sunday’s rest, sacrificed their last savings, their freedom and often also their health – not for themselves but for the majority of the disinherited, before all for those among them who could not help themselves.
But proletarian class-war and proletarian class-consciousness are ethical factors of the first importance rot simply because they develop the fullest sacrifice of the individual to the cause of the whole of his class and bring out an unusually strong sense of duty towards it.
The proletariat, as the lowest class of the community, cannot emancipate himself without making an end to all oppression and exploitation. So the class-conscious proletariat becomes, wherever he obtains power, the advocate of all, so far as their interests do not collide with the social development, oppressed classes, oppressed nations, and an oppressed sex. From this historical role duties come to him which lie outside of his direct class interests, But even with that is not exhausted the circle of the social duties which the class-conscious proletariat takes on himself.
He cannot emancipate himself on the basis of the wage system. He requires the abolition of the existing order of property and production – he must set himself a high social aim – and his is the only class to-day which has such. His is the only revolutionary class, that means, the only one which does not limit itself to petty work for momentary advantages but strives for a social end, in this sense it is the only class in whom idealism is to be found.
Thus grows out of the class war of the proletariat the highest ethical strength, the sacrifice to a lofty end, and the revolutionary class war of the proletariat becomes the ground on which the ablest and keenest champions of idealism in all classes of modern society come together – as many as there are of them left. The more revolutionary, the more idealist the proletarian class war, the more the final aim is accentuated, the greater is its ethical force, the force for the moral regeneration of the proletariat. The practical detail work of the proletariat will thereby itself be ennobled, which otherwise too easily produces the tendency to degenerate the proletariat to the level of the present day lower middle class.
The co-operative societies, where they find a proletariat without class-consciousness, very often produce in him the instinct of the huckster. All interest is concentrated on the dividends. Where on the other hand in the co-operative societies a class-conscious proletariat rules there they are managed in the interest of the community, as we have seen in Belgium, where the dividends, the profits of the individual out of the common undertaking, are insignificant, and the money given to support the cause of the emancipation of the class, the important element.
Just as it stands with the co-operative societies, so does it stand with the trade unions. If they develop into a proletariat without revolutionary feeling they have the tendency to develop the spirit of trade prejudice and exclusiveness, the caste spirit of an aristocracy which endeavours to obtain a privileged position among and at the cost of their proletarian comrades.
Quite different is the moral effect of the trade unions among a revolutionary proletariat. The organised workers feel themselves here as the champions of the rest. The members and leaders of a trade union inspired by Socialist ideas fight, not only for the interests of their organisation, they hold it for quite as important a duty to raise the non-organised of their own trade and other trades, to get them into the organisations, to help them to found organisations where they could not do it of their own strength. While the English trade union movement created an aristocracy of labour, under which a large proletariat vegetated in the same misery in which it was sunk in the first half of this century, the continental labour movement aims at raising all sections of the proletariat.
And just in the same way, through the revolutionary Socialist method of thinking, the political activity of the proletariat is raised to a higher ethical level. Where this method of thinking fails, where the proletariat thinks quite in middle-class fashion, and so-called “practically,” there he looks on the voting paper, as we have already observed, as valuable goods which he sells to the highest bidder. Where the proletariat thinks as a revolutionary Socialist, there his political fight is a fight for principles. His fight concerns the whole social life, which is to be raised to a higher level, not only the attainment of individual advantages. The fight for these advantages itself become means to the end, and this end is the regeneration of the proletariat to make it worthy of its great historical task.
Thus the ethical forces of Social -Democracy flow from the conscious class war of the proletariat, out of the most vigorous activities of life. Whence, according to Dr. Forster, shall they spring? From the propaganda, which shall be ethicalised “in its general assumptions as well as in its jargon.” Therefore, by preaching and a change of jargon, the English workers are to be imbued with that ethics which they lack. As if preaching had ever been able to create moral forces, which can only arise out of the total processes of social life. But, indeed, what remains for our ethicals otherwise to do except to preach, since to them all those practical activities from which the proletarian morality springs are a source of offence?
So are they all – the worthy ethical economists and their allies. After they have taught the workers to despise all that which could raise them, all “utopianism,” all “prophesying,” all revolutionary thinking; after they have persuaded them that all activity is folly which does not at once pay; after all that, they are horror-stricken over the consequences o£ this purely “selfish” practice, and now hope that it will be made good through ethical preaching and ethical jargon. while the champions of the revolutionary class war produce an ethic without talking much about it, these practical “friends of labour” choke in the proletariat all ethical feeling and make instead a great deal of their ethical enthusiasm, which they parade just as obtrusively as many ladies do their virtue.
But if ethical propaganda and ethical jargon were really in a position to produce a feeling of communal solidarity, a sense of justice, of duty, and willing self-sacrifice over against the community, then the English workers would be the most out-and-out heroes of virtue. Because no other worker has been so dosed with ethics for decades as the English, in which, as are readily acknowledged, many great and deep thoughts are to be found-from Carlyle, Kingsley, Ruskin, to the champions of the Ethical World. No other worker was so alive to it as he. And the success? Over this point, Dr. Forster gives information in his article.
With that we do not wish to say that we fully share his view of the moral inferiority of the English worker. Certainly, the forces tending to demoralise the proletariat are nowhere so strongly developed as in England, except the United States. But even in the crippled form which the proletarian class-war has taken in .England, it develops morally elevating tendencies even though not so strong as in countries with a strong Social-Democratic agitation.
What the English workers want to develop revolutionary idealism and a general feeling of proletarian solidarity to their full strength is an independent working-class party.
If the preaching of the practical small reform with the corresponding ethical jargon found among them so willing an ear, that is to be attributed to the peculiar conditions of England, where, after 1848, while the general political movement of the proletariat lay dormant, co-operative societies and trade societies developed themselves. On the Continent, on the other hand, as after the period of reaction a Labour movement again began, this had first of all to win a legal footing for its organisations; in the foreground came the political battle, a fight not for particular advantages for individual trades or organisations, but for the rights of all the dispossessed, a fight of the thoughtful proletariat against their united bourgeois opponents, against the wobbling of the Liberals and the brutality of the Conservatives. From this sprang the independent political organisation of the proletariat, whose struggles so tended to strengthen the class-consciousness that they cannot again lose it as their economic organisations grow stronger. These can only increase the strength of the class-consciousness; they cannot any more split it up, and no more allow solidarity and idealism to be smothered by “selfish and individual interest.”
But even in England the conditions develop themselves for an independent political working-class party, they do not develop so quickly as our impatience wishes, but they develop. Given conditions for a strong independent labour party in England, then will the way be made smooth for overcoming the caste spirit and the middle-class method of thinking of a great part of the English labour aristocracy. Then will the regeneration of the English working-class make rapid progress even without ethical jargon. Not from the ethical society, but from the English Social-Democracy, so soon as it becomes a party of the masses, will this regeneration spring. Those who are concerned with real ethics, and not with ethical jargon, should help the English Socialists in their struggle.
Class War and Ethics
By Dr. Foerster and Karl Kautsky.
[Translator’s Note. – I give here a translation from the Neue Zeit, January 5 and 12, for English comrades, of the reply of Dr. Foerster to the article of Karl Kautsky (a translation of which was published under the same title as this article in the December issue of the SOCIAL-DEMOCRAT) with a counter reply of Karl Kautsky to the reply of Dr. Foerster.
J. B. Agnew.]
IN Number VIII. of this paper (Neue Zeit. – TRANS.) Herr Kautsky has criticised exhaustively an article of mine on “Social Democracy and Ethics” (in Soziale Praxis, No. 4). I may be allowed some words in reply especially as I have been misunderstood on certain points.
I have called attention to some disquieting beginnings of political corruption which had manifested themselves with the entry of labour majorities into an English town council, and had even given occasion to a conference of Socialist labour representatives to set the theme, “The Difficulties of a Labour Majority,” down among the subjects to be discussed. My English correspondent is at the same time of the same opinion as John Burns that this kind of development can only be avoided by placing the struggle of the workers for emancipation in due time on a wider moral basis. That implies, that it is not only expressly recognised that the fighting class has a moral obligation over against the other classes, but in the concrete that this is put into practice in the conduct of the fight. I do not understand how Herr Kautsky can ask in the face of that whether “these gentlemen know nothing” of the unmentionable sacrifices which the individual members of the proletariat have made, not from selfish interest, but as a sacrifice to their class – whether that is no ethic. As if English labour leaders had no knowledge of these facts. No one denies that the self sacrifice of the worker for the sake of his class is an ethical factor. Just as little as one would deny that self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s own country was an ethical factor, and that it had inspired many men to the heights of altruism. But will not one be obliged to state that ethical culture can only fully develop itself so long as this feeling does not stop short at the frontier? And will one not also, in the social sphere, only be able to rely on the scrupulousness and unselfishness of an individual or a group so long as these forces are not only efficacious within the sphere of definite solidarity of interests, but also where these interests come in collision with other interests-and especially then? One observes, further, that the strength and certainty of the social point of view even within the sphere of definite solidarity of interest is in great danger if the moral obligation only extends to members of this community. Just as every act of unscrupulousness in international relations tends to weaken moral obligations within the nation, so will also every fighting class find that it loosens its own moral cohesion so soon as it, in its dealings with the outer world, repudiates generosity and self-control and allows the anti-social instincts of its members a free hand, so long as these do not turn them selves against their own group, but even promise to obtain momentary advantages. And, be it remarked, we are concerned here with the smallest beginnings, not with great acts of ruffianism or breaches of the law. It is the faithlessness and injustice in small matters from which grow the faithlessness and injustice in the big. If Burns and Sanders speak out against the simple preaching of the class war, they do not do so because any great abuses are to the fore. But they do so because they see that the simple class-war man only too quickly falls, as against other classes, into a mood of odious and contemptible injustice and lack of honesty which disintegrates his social feeling and becomes a danger for the whole social development, if this class-war man, filled with antipathy and class egoism, forces his way into the government of the community and acquires power over those whom be hitherto has judged inconsistently and unjustly. Or shall we say: When God gives an appointment he gives all the requisite impartiality, untrammelled by prejudice or interest? Impartiality must be learnt and practised; it does not come to the worker simply because it stands in his party programme in the declaration: The emancipation of the workers means the emancipation of the whole human race. Not by calls on the future, but by concrete practice in the present, it must be proved whether our social conceptions rise above the class interests and therewith are really capable of emancipating.
Social-Democracy has certainly in itself the spiritual means to such a high and consistent conception of justice. It represents the idea that society has not the right to treat the criminal simply from the standpoint of a passionate and angry self-defence, but that it is its duty, through the whole method of treatment, to call forth the sleeping social forces, and therewith to win the criminal back to society (naturally leaving on one side all means of social prevention). Why, then, do Social-Democrats not apply this point of view to the fighting of anti-social stubbornness in bourgeois society? Why do they remain, on this question, on the level of the bludgeon and abusing policy? Why do they allow themselves to judge and talk in a manner which is a blow in the face to all consistency in social thought? C’est le ton qui fait la musique.
Do they believe that they will be able to train the worker as bearer of human solidarity if he, on the great stage of party agitation, so often sees the old primitive instincts win the victory over generosity and self-discipline?
Always and ever again are ethics accused of wishing to cripple and dispirit the worker in his fight for his rights. I know no such ethic. I might even say that ethics are the science of “resistance to evil.” Certainly such a science will now and then restrain the fighter. But only when the means he adopts are in opposition to the final aim of the fight, and if he forgets that reaction against the anti-social can only lead to a permanent success if it free itself from anti-social elements, and remains in touch with the incorruptible communal spirit which alone can carry the frame of the future. Social-Democrats can organise the workers, and resist insolence, even without speaking in the name of “class-consciousness,” since such organisation will even serve other classes, and bring them the moral help which lies in the building up of new social foundations of human solidarity. Why should this always remain bound up in the similes and pictures and allegories of the class war, which, moreover, give a very incomplete idea of social development, since a great deal more than the mere overcoming and smashing up of opponents takes place here? Science requires exact ideas; but how can the Socialist science allow a word cumbered with so many military and primitive ideas as “war” to stand in that manner in the middle of their social theory? The word appeals to all the anti-democratic instincts in men, to the desire to overpower and attack, and therefore ought to be excluded from the “jargon” of a civilising movement.
By the way, I am not arguing against an occasional use of a pictorial phrase, but certainly against this excessive accentuation of “war” in opposition to agreement and mutual help, because by this very means the thought is encouraged among the thoughtless that the moral decadence of the bourgeoisie is an advantage for the workers and that every earnest endeavour towards the social education of the upper classes is actually “helping the enemy.”
The deepening of the moral impulse in the workers will even be of advantage to their emancipation, since the more the dissatisfaction of the workers with the existing order takes root in deep moral needs, so the more irresistibly will they press forward if the prick of hunger is not the only driving force, We need a new Lassalle who will fight the “damned contentedness” (Verdammte Bedürfnisslosigkeit) of the workers also on the plane of moral humanity, and along with the higher needs awake a stronger impulse towards emancipation. It is not ethics which lull the worker to sleep, but the lack of the ethical note in the propaganda that allows him to bear and endure much which would drive men of a finer moral feeling beside themselves.
Yet, a word about the English worker. Herr Kautsky is surprised that I warn the German workers to profit by the English example. But the English worker lacks the great idealism which comes to the German worker out of the utopianism so calumniated by the bourgeois economists and prevents hirer sinking into profit-seeking. The English worker has been fed with ethics from Carlyle, Ruskin, Kingsley, etc. What use has that been to him? The matter does not stand thus. Carlyle preached ethics to the propertied, but had no point of contact with the labour movement. Ruskin’s influence was on the aesthetic side; an ethics, on the class war, he has never written; lastly, Kingsley has no more influence on the modern, non-Christian industrial class. Only in the co-operative movement is ethics preached – and there with great success: indeed, the ethical idealism of the British co-operator it is which has first aroused wider circles of English workers to the idea of Socialism. As far as Herr Kautsky’s remark is concerned, that Socialist “Utopianism” would have kept the English worker from the attempts described, it will be a blow to him to learn that the majority in question in West Ham was a thoroughly Socialist group standing on the basis of the class war. (See Economic Review, No. 1, 1900). So that therefore it was actually reserved to the Socialist class-war theory to introduce the first fiasco of a genuine social communal administration. And who, indeed, can then really deny that from the standpoint of psychology and social psychology a causal connection exists? This Socialist theory of a class war is certainly a theory of the isolation of the working class from spiritual and moral community with the other classes, (Is it not continually taught that there is no ethic standing higher than the class war?) Whence than, in a given historical moment, shall a working class “enlightened” in this way suddenly acquire a sense of moral obligation over against the other classes? No, Herr Kautsky, you make too light of the matter. I am by no means one of those bourgeois economists who fail to recognise the ideal and the “Final aim” as the inspiration of the social movement, but I miss just the making of this “final aim” fruitful for every day, for the personal life, for the desire of men for an inward renewal. But there is the question. The modern Socialist is afraid to complete his propaganda and his whole action in the sense of his final aim, because the brutal suppression and outlawry of the Bismarkian era have made a deep impression on our social movement and made every reformer believe that moderation and generosity are weakness and helplessness. Why then does the Vorwaerts write a leading article on the Chinese question under the heading “The Helplessness of Might"?
Kautsky gives some examples to show that the class war in other places has guarded itself better. First, in the Belgian co-operative societies. This example does not apply, since it concerns itself with institutions for the profit: of the party. But has not France had a certain unassailable success in Socialist communal administration? Certainly. But in France the working class is not nearly so strongly organised as in England, and therefore such isolated Socialist representatives have a very delicate and dangerous position, and therefore do their best. But in England communal Socialism is an expression of the real strength of the English organised worker. There they can let themselves go earlier. And, besides, the problem is in England much more complicated and at the same time much more expressive for the coming difficulties of democratic control. It is that the communal representatives are not the actual guilty parties, but the organised employees of the municipal trading concerns who use their political power over the community to obtain extra advantages. It would be an advantage if these things gave occasion to timely thought on the part of the German workers instead of waiting until it is too late.
Finally, a word about “preaching.” “As if preaching were able to create moral forces, which only can arise from the sum total of the processes of social life,” I ask Herr Kautsky: Are the moral living forces in the German Labour movement sprung from the sum total of processes, without preaching? Is not the whole activity of the Social-Democracy for decades an organised preaching for the awakening of class consciousness? And how does Herr Kautsky know that the new ethic, the longing for a wider basis for the feeling of solidarity, for a greater consistency in the social thought, for a closer connection of the individual standard of life with the social ideal, does not arise from the depths of economic necessity?
I gladly rectify an error. Mr. Sanders is not a member of the Independent Labour Party, but, all the same, a Socialist and for ten years the right hand man of John Burns. He has, therefore, the right to be listened to by the German workers. He has no intention of advising the workers to join the ethical movement. But every labour organisation might well be more than hitherto a labour organisation. Not to weaken, but to strengthen. That is what is in my innermost heart; and every experienced trade unionist will admit me to be right there.
Dr. Foerster’s reply brings out no new facts. As far as the phenomenon is concerned which induced him to his philippic against the class war, he can only repeat the assertion that it “introduces the first fiasco of a genuine social communal administration,” without explaining clearly in what this fiasco consisted and on what ground it so particularly had its cause in the theory of the class war. But Dr. Foerster will, perhaps, allow me to remain a little sceptical in regard to what are simple assertions of his on English affairs. What guarantee have I that Dr. Foerster has not made just as much of a mistake in regard to West Ham as in regard to Mr. Sanders? What I have learnt in the course of a decade about the difficulties of “Labour majorities” was of quite another character to the revelations of Dr. Foerster. According to that, the diffculties mostly came from the lack of strength and means which stood at the disposal of the “Labour majority,” and from the capitalist nature of the State, but not from the lack of ethic in the municipal workers. The London municipal administration is extremely limited, and in all its reforms dependent on Parliament. But this is – thanks to the famous policy of the English workers – entirely in the hands of the capitalists, who take care that capitalist interests in London shall not suffer even to the smallest extent. Hence, despite the famous English Municipal Socialism, London is still always given up to a band of monopolists, who exploit their position in the most shameless manner. Not only the gasworks, but also the water supply, even the very markets – are in possession of private people and companies, and the Parliament of would-be social reformers – i.e, the English Parliament – watches tenderly over their interests, and has hitherto rejected all proposals which aimed at an alteration in this scandalous state of affairs. Thus the market right in Covent Garden, the central vegetable market, belongs to the Duke of Bedford, who draws therefrom yearly an income of £30,000. The eight water companies, who provide London with water, drew already in 1893 from their privilege £1,000,000 profit. In return they deliver insanitary water in such insufficient quantities that nearly every year s water famine breaks out. The water rate which each house has to pay them is not measured according to the amount of water delivered, but according to the amount of the ground rent. As this rises unceasingly, the water rate rises even when the amount of water delivered sinks. A house which in 1851 paid £8 water rate must now pay £22 for it. But in vain did the London County Council seek to become master of the monopolists, to buy them out, to communalise the water supply. Not in vain do Parliament and the Government swarm with shareholders and directors of the London water companies. The Liberals are only to be distinguished from the Conservatives in that these latter reject the proposals of the “Labour majority” without any more ado, while the former promise to do what they can, only to bury the reform proposals in a Commission.
Of this nature are the difficulties of a London “Labour majority” which I know. They come not from too much, but from too little class war and class consciousness. These difficulties could only be overcome through overcoming the opponents of Socialism.
What does Dr. Foerster on the contrary want from us? We shall awake the slumbering social forces (in the capitalist), so that the criminal may be known to society, and in this manner the “anti-social stubbornness” be conquered. ‘We are to bring to the capitalists “understanding and help,” “moral help,” and take in hand the “social education of the upper classes.”
If Dr. Foerster considers this method so fruitful, no one will prevent his applying it. He may, therefore, turn to the shareholders of the London waterworks, bring them that moral help which they urgently, need, and seek for an understanding with them, and in this fashion get rid of one of the greatest hindrances to a London labour majority. If he succeeds I will ask him to apply the same recipe to our coal monopolists, and declare the class war to be a pitiable mistake. As long as he, however, does not achieve it, be must not take it amiss from me if I declare his and Mr. Sanders’ moral indignation over the immorality of the class war as empty bubbles, which dissolve on the first contact with reality.
Dr. Foerster has not once made the attempt to prove that the class war was not a necessity, or an indispensable lever for social development in a society based on class antagonisms. But has he proved the immorality of this struggle?
Dr. Foerster declares it to be necessary that “one” should place the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes “in right time” on a “broader moral basis.” “That implies, that it is not only expressly recognised that a fighting class has duties over against the other classes, but in the concrete that this is put into practice in the conduct of the fight.” He also points out that ethical duties towards one’s own nation do not exclude international duties. “Just as every act of unscrupulousness in international relations tends to weaken moral obligations within the nation,” so will every class undergo moral decomposition which denies their moral obligations to the other classes.
This deduction of Dr. Foerster’s has a very seductive appearance so long as one does not examine it too closely.
That we have moral obligations not only to our own nation but at the same time to other nations no Social-Democrat will naturally deny. But Dr. Foerster forgets one circumstance when he draws his conclusions from this as to the moral obligations of the proletariat over against the capitalist class: the essential condition of internationality is that the nations stand on an equal footing to each other. International solidarity is impossible where one nation oppresses and exploits the others. In any case, the overlordship of one nation over another is an appearance which is not necessarily bound up with the idea of nationality. On the other band, oppression and exploitation are necessary ingredients of the capitalistic relations. But is the ethic of Dr. Foerster of such a nature that it allows moral obligations to spring from oppression and exploitation? If not, what talk can there possibly be of the moral obligations of the proletariat as class over against the capitalist class? The class is not to be confounded with the individual. Where proletariat and capitalist come together as individuals in general human relations to one another, the resulting moral obligations remain for them. If a manufacturer falls into the water, a passing worker will not stop to enquire what class the unfortunate being belongs to, but without further ado will help him. But in this case they do not stand over against each other as capitalist and worker. That has nothing to do with the moral obligation which the working class is said to have over against the capitalist class in the class war. Whether one acknowledges that or no, depends upon the standpoint taken by the observer.
From the bourgeois standpoint the capitalistic relation is necessary and indispensable for society. The subordination and exploitation of the worker is from this standpoint not only in the interest of the capitalist class, but in the interest of the entire community. Therefore, to submit himself to oppression and exploitation is not only a recognition of superior might on the part of the worker, but also a moral duty for the working class. The submissiveness and contentedness of the working classes are regarded in consequence as their greatest virtues.
The matter appears quite different from a Socialist proletarian point of view. >From this the capitalist relation is superfluous, even detrimental for society. To oppose himself to the exploitation and oppression by capital, to work for the destruction of capitalist conditions, is not only demanded in the particular interest of the proletariat, but in the common interest of society. To stir up revolt against the capitalist class, to destroy it where possible, will from this standpoint be regarded as a moral obligation of the proletariat. The submissiveness and the contentedness of the working classes become now a moral stain; they appear as the cowardly spirit of slaves and as lack of intelligence.
Only if Dr. Foerster places himself on the bourgeois standpoint can he show any moral obligations of the working class over against the capitalist class.
But, argues Dr. Foerster, does not the criminal sin even more against society than the capitalist? And yet we recognise the moral obligations of society towards the criminal. Why not, then, towards the capitalist class?
Even here we find the confusion between individuals and classes. Certainly we recognise moral obligations even to the criminal. His life and his person is for us holy so far as necessity does not compel us to deal with him. But have we refused the same to the person of the capitalist? We do not, nevertheless, recognise the smallest moral obligation to the class of the criminal, far more do we feel the moral obligation to root out this class in that we abolish the social conditions in which it thrives. “
The same applies to the class war against the capitalist class. What are we concerned with here? In the first place higher wages, shorter hours of labour, then with social reforms at the cost of the capitalist class. Where shall in all this the proletariat develop that “benevolent generosity and self-discipline” which Dr. Foerster demands from him towards the possessing classes? Has it not much rather the moral duty towards society as towards itself to raise its share in the benefits of civilisation as much as possible, to increase his leisure, that means to increase the time which remains to him to cultivate himself and develop himself as a man? Certainly if a labour aristocracy endeavours to obtain a privileged position at the cost of the poorer sections of the community, that appears to us thoroughly unethical.
We took for granted in our criticism of the Foerster article that he condemned the West Ham municipal employee from this standpoint. Now we find that we have thoroughly misunderstood him, that our first criticism does not fully apply to him, since his ethical indignation was concerned with the attempts of municipal employees to obtain extra privileges at the cost of the propertied classes. He demands the “benevolent generosity and discipline” of the workers over against people who look down on them from a far better position. He condemns rises of wages at the cost of people who have greater unearned incomes than the wages-drawer gets from his pay, be condemns shortening of the hours of labour of hard-working people at the cost of people of whom a large proportion do not know what it means to work.
Frankly, I had not dreamt that the ethic of Dr. Foerster had such consequences. When it is attempted, in the place of the class war, to set the personal fight between the worker and capitalist, we will always accentuate the moral duties towards the person of the latter. Just as much must we do the same in the moment when the class war between proletariat and capitalist class arrives at its aim, where the victorious proletariat makes an end to the latter class by putting an end to private property in the means of social production. Then certainly will the working class take over moral obligations to those classes, who hitherto opposed them as the capitalist class.
But in the case of the West Ham fiasco, we are not concerned with this consideration. There no one attempted the propaganda of deed, nor the expropriation of the expropriators; but, if I have rightly understood Dr. Foerster, tried for increases of wages and shortening of the hours of labour, which were over the usual standard, and were inconvenient for the propertied classes. That may have been stupid and short-sighted when it made difficulties for the labour majority. But on that account to appeal to the “benevolent generosity” of the proletariat sounds comic. Or have I again misunderstood Dr. Foerster? I must allow that his method of thinking is so different to mine that I find it difficult to connect distinct ideas with his ethical expressions.
So I am quite in the dark what the “new Lassalle” is to do, who shall fight the “damned contentedness” of the working classes, and on the field of moral humanity and with higher needs also waken stronger impulses for emancipation. And just as much in the dark were to me his complaints over the lulling of the worker to sleep “through the lack of deeper ethical notes in the propaganda which induces him to bear and endure mach which would drive a person with a finer ethical feeling beside himself.”
Is Dr. Foerster dissatisfied over the fact that the workers bear too much? Does he want them to get in a rage over the smallest grievance? But where then are the “generosity and self-discipline”; where the “agreement” and “mutual help’?
This contradiction would only then find a solution if Dr. Foerster were of opinion that in their own class struggles the workers shall apply restraint, but on the contrary shall get mad with rage whenever an injury happens to another class or individual which this latter is too cowardly to prevent.
In such cases the preparedness and the willingness to fight will freely be accounted unto the proletariat for a virtue from the same tongues which thundered against them – when they were employed in the proletariat class interest – as objectionable brutality and baseness.
That the proletariat should use its might to represent only bourgeois interests and not its own were certainly the triumph of an ethic dominating the class antagonism. But to convert the proletariat to that is more than any Lassalle and Foerster together could do.
1. Italics are mine. – Trans.