Bookmarks - Mick Hume on Leon Trotsky's Their Morals and Ours

Their Morals and Ours

Leon Trotsky

ISBN 0873483197

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