Madrid, morals and moralism

Submitted by AWL on 17 March, 2004 - 12:38

by Gerry Byrne

My immediate reaction to the Madrid bombing I imagine I shared with millions across the political spectrum. It is the second thoughts that divide us. I don't quite know how to express my disquiet at some of those second thoughts expressed on the left.

We can't take an attitude till we know who is responsible. They're human beings. It's wrong. It should be condemned.

How will it affect the prospects of the anti-war movement? That depends on how the anti-war movement responds, with human decency or mealy-mouthed apologism.

What's happened to our humanity? When did the left lose its morals?

I want to stress that this is not a factional matter. I've been moved by the decency of some of those politically opposed to me and occasionally shocked by the coldness of those on my own side. I'm talking about the unquestioned assumptions that are part of the air we breathe, the common political culture of the left.

I'll give you a perhaps trivial example. I've lost count of the times I've heard the comment '… will the first to be lined up against the wall and shot.' It's not meant seriously, but that kind of casual brutality would not be seen as funny if applied to rape or racism (which is an advance, because once upon a time they would have been acceptable subjects for humour). It's not that I don't understand that there may be hard necessities on the road to human freedom, but the relish with which they are embraced. As if the main point of socialism was to unleash an orgy of revenge.

Even to talk about morals seems suspect. It has become inappropriate to link morality with political discourse. 'Moralism' is an accusation that is used to curtail political debate. It is seen as either naïve or politically manipulative, and thus ruled out of court. There is no necessity currently on the left to answer moral questions. They're not legitimate: it is as if they hadn't been asked.

It wasn't always so. The works of Marx and Engels and the early socialists are drenched in moral outrage and appeals to sentiment. To them, socialism was self-evidently, among other things, a moral matter. I was tempted to use the word 'crusade', because for many it was tied up with religious sentiment, and that may be one of the problems for modern-day socialists. But even in the case of Marx, proudly atheistic, his work is suffused with it.

So what happened to change things?

The short answer is Stalinism. And following that, postmodern relativism. By this I don't mean to suggest there were no dodgy moral positions advanced before Stalin. I mean that it is Stalinism that effected the seismic shift in socialist morality, turning it on its head, making the high low, the moral plane precipitous.

Stalinism acted as a tumour on the brain of socialism, progressively shutting down the higher functions: memory, judgement, sympathy. I don't use this metaphor casually. I had a friend who died of brain tumour, who said the worst thing, the thing that sickened her to her soul, was the thought that this alien growth was changing her personality, swelling, and usurping her core self. Stalinism swelled and displaced the 'self' of socialism, attacking its most fundamental character. Its human victims have lain in their (often unmarked) graves for 50 years and more, but its intellectual poison still permeates our discussions.

Stalinism struck at the twin pillars of socialist morality: truth and human sympathy, and made them no-go areas. Postmodernism stepped into the gap and, with its insistence on the relativism of all human values (absolute relativism?), prevented the possibility of any repair.

So what is in this poison we've imbibed?

The value of human life as relative
'You don't count the dead, with God on our side', sang Bob Dylan. But now it's the left, rather than the imperialists, for whom the political affiliation of a corpse is more important than our common humanity. I think this attitude would have astonished our socialist forebears. They raged against the low value placed on the lives of the poor, the working class, and especially children. They had no quarrel with the concept of human life having an absolute value, simply that it was not recognised in practice. It was the hypocrisy of the claim that all human life was equally valued, rather than the claim of value in itself.

What I am thinking of when I talk about the relative valuation of life, is the failure to condemn suicide bombings or terrorism – if it's perpetrated by 'our side'. Indeed, the almost compulsory ironising quote marks round "terrorism", as if by thus expressing our scepticism we could drain the act of terrorism of meaning, or make as if it didn't exist.

Terrorism is real. The word has a widely understood meaning (which is not to deny that you could dispute whether a particular case is included under that meaning). Terrorism is the deliberate, indiscriminate targeting of civilian populations in order to induce a generalised state of fear, in the hope effecting some political change. Now that political aim might be something we support, but I would argue terrorism is something that socialists should never support, because it offends against a basic principle of socialist morality. This is different from saying that we disagree with terrorism tactically, because it's ineffective or counterproductive. I'm saying we should oppose terrorism on principle.

But first lets deal with a couple of red herrings. "Bush is the real terrorist". When governments recklessly or deliberately target civilian populations to create panic and demoralisation, whether in Dresden or Baghdad, that's a war crime. There may be some propaganda point to be made in stating this is the moral equivalent of terrorism in its more ordinary meaning. Just to be absolutely clear, I believe terrorism, war crimes, crimes against humanity, are all unjustifiable in a socialist morality. But the "real" in this context implies by contrast that the terrorist attack is unreal, not deserving of condemnation.

And what about the so-called "war on terror"? I do think it makes sense to put that phrase in quotes. The concept of a war on terror is logically incoherent, politically dishonest and used to obscure attacks on the very liberties it purports to defend. It is nonsensical to wage war on a method of waging war. It would make as much sense to wage war on the use of poison gas. You can outlaw it, but terrorism is already against the law. What would it mean to win the war on terror? That no disgruntled party would ever again be able to terrorise a civilian population? The only way of ensuring that would be to do away with civil liberties altogether, to do away with civil society. To say socialists should oppose terrorism on principle is not to give any support to our governments' "war on terror".

So why do I think we should reinstate socialist morality, with its twin pillars of truth and respect for human life, liberty and dignity? Socialism is based on human solidarity, on the claim that it is what we have in common, our humanity, dictates how we should be treated, not our accidental historical differences, of race, nation, gender or anything else. And our political project is the creation of a society based on those values, rather than the anti-human values of class society.

"Philosophers have merely interpreted the world, the point is to change it." This statement makes no sense outside of an appeal to morality. Changing the world is something we should do. Marx's monumental descriptive and analytic effort in 'Capital' and all the rest is pointless without the conclusion that there is something wrong with the state of affairs he describes, something we feel should be changed.

Socialism without values is not some poorer version of socialism; it is not socialism at all. And our political efforts, if there are not based ultimately on morality, are masturbatory at best, at worst psychotic.

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