On Their Morals

The appeal to abstract norms is not a disinterested philosophical mistake but a necessary element in the mechanics of class deception.

– Leon Trotsky

On Human Nature

The other evening, some friends and I had a discussion about our societal woes and how to solve them. As I described the sort of world I would like to see, one of my friends called me idealistic. She related that there were people at her place of work who did the bare minimum they could possibly do and still keep their jobs. She also spoke about ambitious, hard-working millionaires. Her point, I believe, was that a system that neither rewards people with vastly more than they can ever use, nor deprives others of their basic needs, cannot work – because of human nature. The sort of society of which I dream would leave everything undone, since people would have no motivation to do anything.

My knee-jerk response was to say that ideas and habits are a result of the economic system, not vice versa. If we really want to change the undesirable ways people behave, we should change the system. This more or less ended that part of our discussion, and not because anyone was convinced of the wisdom of the statement.

The next day, I wanted to find a specific reference on this concept, and was pleased that an online search for “material conditions determine consciousness” quickly turned up this quote, from the preface to Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.

So our legal institutions, our politics, even our notions about ourselves and accepted concepts of justice – all derive from our economic relations. These relations determine our consciousness and norms of behavior.

The task is not to address faults in “human nature.” The task is to focus attention on material conditions, the inherent antagonisms that must exist in a society based on class, and conflicts that currently exist between productive forces and property relations. This offers an opportunity to raise consciousness of the essential nature of life under capitalism. Such is the basis for revolution.

We Shall See What Will Become Of His Dreams

“There are people who have come to see the moral imperative of equality, but who cannot yet see the moral imperative of world brotherhood. I would like to see the fervor of the civil-rights movement imbued into the peace movement to instill it with greater strength. And I believe everyone has a duty to be in both the civil-rights and peace movements. But for those who presently choose but one, I would hope they will finally come to see the moral roots common to both.”

– The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Remembering Du Bois

Let us remember the great W.E.B. Du Bois on this anniversary of his birth.

Du Bois, who said “One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

The Final Word

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

– The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Born On This Day in 1929

On American Soil

The United States had Marxists in the past, it is true, but they were a strange type of Marxist, or rather, three strange types. In the first place, there were the émigrés cast out of Europe, who did what they could but could not find any response; in the second place, isolated American groups, like the De Leonists, who in the course of events, and because of their own mistakes, turned themselves into sects; in the third place, dilettantes attracted by the October Revolution and sympathetic to Marxism as an exotic teaching that had little to do with the United States. Their day is over. Now dawns the new epoch of an independent class movement of the proletariat and at the same time of genuine Marxism. In this, too, America will in a few jumps catch up with Europe and outdistance it. Advanced technology and an advanced social structure will pave their own way in the sphere of doctrine. The best theoreticians of Marxism will appear on American soil. Marx will become the mentor of the advanced American workers. To them this abridged exposition of the first volume will become only an initial step toward the complete Marx.

– Leon Trotsky

Order Versus Justice

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote these words from a jail cell.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

The Language of the Unheard

Here’s a quote, apropos of the day.

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Speaking at Grosse Pointe High School on March 14, 1968