Revolutionary Teleology and Ethics


Svetozar Stojanović

Can dictatorship lead to democracy? Coercion and violence to freedom? Class struggle to classless society? Is it true that uniformity can generate variety? Is it reasonable to believe that stateless society, the self-governing community will originate from absolute state power? How is the socialist revolution, which is part of prehistory, to lead humanity to the beginning of its real history? Can the creation of new life and the education of new man be the work of revolutionaries who themselves belong to the old world? Who is to educate the educators?

Marxists and communists have always been troubled by the relation between revolutionary means and ends; it has also been a matter of interest to Marxian scholars and students of communism. These categories are indispensable to any serious consideration of the moral dilemmas involved in the socialist revolution. I will support this contention by some examples. The well-known controversies of Lenin and Trotsky with Kautsky and, nearly twenty years later, of Trotsky with Dewey provide what are probably the best examples; I shall return to them later. In Humanisme et terreur (1947) Merleau-Ponty examined the essential aspect of revolutionary teleology. Herbert Marcuse has recently written a very interesting essay on "Ethics and Revolution" (1965). Sartre's great drama Les Mains Sales is a masterful presentment of the dilemmas which torment the communist movement in its concern for means and ends. The necessity of choice between Hugo and Oderer, the main protagonists in Sartre's play, would certainly bring out essential differences of commitment and sympathy even in a small group of communists. The successful struggle [29/30] against Stalinism in contemporary Marxism has partly concentrated on the means-end relation.

As the communist movement has opted for the most ambitious moral goals, nothing is more appalling than instances of its moral degeneration. Some parts of the movement have degraded the unlimited faith in the historical mission of communism to the extent of applying any means. The communist movement has often been torn between the most humane ends and the most brutal means.

No revolution can escape serious moral temptations. By definition, revolutionary ends and actions represent a negation of the existing value and normative order in the spheres of law, politics, morality and custom. What considerations, then, prevent revolutionaries from falling into complete moral relativism?

It is obvious that life itself, let alone, revolution, involves a kind of moral tragedy: one has often to choose between greater or lesser evil rather than between greater or lesser good. The "ledger" of life cannot contain only moral gains. But this does not mean that there cannot be biographies in which moral losses are far outweighed by the moral gains. The revolutionary must be wary not to identify the explanation of his errors by the difficulties of the situation in which he had committed them with their moral justification. If this identification becomes habitual, his final moral balance will certainly be negative.


The principle that the end justifies the means has seldom been openly proclaimed in the history of the communist movement. Stalin himself refrained from doing so. Marx's repeated assertion that "the end which requires bad means is not a good end" (1) has probably exercised some influence here. But though not proclaimed, the principle has often been adopted in practice.

Few political movements refrain from statements of good intention. All communists seem to be in agreement on the ultimate humanistic ends. But the real character of a movement [30/31] cannot be ascertained only on the nature of its programmatic ends; its actual activity, i.e. the means used, has also to be taken into account. If it is limited to ultimate ends, the programme of a revolutionary movement remains abstract, vague and not clearly distinguishable from other humanistic programs.

The means-end relation has a dialectical character: each side becomes concrete only in relation to the other side. The means is chosen in view of the end, and the full nature of the end is only revealed through the chosen and applied means. The extent of concern for the end is proportional to the extent of concern for the means, i.e. for the harmonious balance of means and the end. Abstract humanism differs from concrete and revolutionary Marxist humanism precisely in its neglect of the means, of actual conditions, real possibilities and necessary phases. Therefore it is often reduced to rhetoric or to a noble, but sterile Utopia.

The investigation of means often reveals the disproportion between the conscious end and the subconscious end which really determines behaviour. Strong disagreement about means suggests the existence of concealed differences in the end. For what we really want is shown not in what we say we want, but in the manner we are in effect obligated by it. The end should be the constitutive as well as the regulative principle of the means. Causa finalis must be active in causa efficiens. What is the realization of the end if not the process of applying the means? Elements of the end should therefore be developed from the beginning of action. Otherwise the means will serve to realize some end other than the intended one, while this will remain mere thought or word.

The end can morally justify the means only if the means does not morally disqualify the end. It follows that the end should exercise constant moral control over the means, and vice versa. The revolutionary movement should not choose the end of its activity without taking into account the price of its achievement. The decision concerning the end can be intelligently and responsibly made only if other possible ends are considered and all consequences of the planned means taken into account.

Foul means do not lead to a moral end. And even if they did, this would not be sufficient to justify them morally. The use of such means instantly creates a gap between the [31/32] proclaimed and the realized end, for immoral means have additional consequences that are not intended (an end can be defined as a set of intended consequences corresponding to our needs). The value of an action depends on all of its consequences, and not only on the intended end. All the consequences of an action should be ascertained, and divided into predictable and unpredictable ones; the responsibility of the revolutionary movement should extend to all predictable consequences, and not only to the intended ones. The consideration of all predictable consequences may morally prevail over the intended consequences, i.e. the intended end. The ethics of intentions or ends is too narrow to include everything of moral relevance in human behaviour.

The revolutionary movement is in a sense identical with the totality of the employed revolutionary means. The movement is therefore committed to constant examination of all revolutionary means with a view to adapting them to the humanistic nature of its ends. Humanism is not only a transcendent ideal; it is also an inherited fund of values which creates lasting obligations for the revolutionary movement. (2) The humanistic continuity of the revolution is impossible to maintain without the continuity of means and ends.

The need for ideological rationalization increases with the brutality of means employed. It is difficult to find a better example than Stalinist propaganda exalting the humanity of the Soviet constitution in the years of the bloodiest purges. An essential part in the structure of rationalization is played by the idea that, under extremely harsh conditions, the movement is forced to use all available means to secure the realization of humanistic revolutionary ends. This idea is clearly discernible in Stalin's explanation of the bloody collectivization in the countryside ("All that was painful and hard, but nevertheless necessary") recorded in the memoirs of Churchill. The theoretical framework of this ideological [32/33] rationalization presupposes a purely transcendent and futuristic interpretation of revolutionary ideals and ends. The use of the most brutal means is believed to lead to a future in which all means will be humane. This belief amounts to a technique for disowning historical and moral responsibility; everything is blamed on the situation and the existing conditions, i.e. on historical necessity.

Psychologically, it is possible to distinguish several phases in the process of using immoral means. At first there is an unawareness of the moral disproportion between means and ends. This is succeeded by a feeling of anxiety. Finally, there appears the intimate rationalization, the belief that the end justifies the means.

Psychologically, it is possible to distinguish several phases of the inversion of means and ends, which I shall call the finalization of means and the instrumentalization of ends. The humanistic ends are used to justify the immoral means, but in reality those means increasingly take their place. The belief that the harshness of the situation makes impossible moral discrimination in the use of means was initially accompanied by a sincere resolve to renounce immoral means as soon as the situation allows. At the final stage it is too late for this moral change since revolutionaries themselves have changed and become morally corrupt. Verbally, the needs have remained the same, but in fact Stalinism has made the original ends, for which the revolutionaries had formerly lived, part of the (false) ideological consciousness. The original ends now serve to conceal the real ends both to revolutionaries themselves and to others.


The difficulties of securing effective means for the achievement of revolutionary ends increase with the comprehensiveness of the ends. The more important the means, the greater the danger that they will transform into ends thus defeating the revolutionaries and their ideals. Under such circumstances an excessive interest, almost an obsession with the means, results. The next step is the aggressiveness of means towards ends, and ultimately their inversion. [33/34]

I am referring to the paradox of revolutionary means. Although they were originally conceived as means, human organizations and activities tend to become independent of their assigned ends and even to replace them. Means quickly acquire their own rhythm and direction, thus creating the gap between them and the ends they were to serve.

This process is facilitated by the fact that the means ontologically precede the ends, and not vice versa. Although conceived and chosen in accordance with the ends, the means are existentially completely independent from them; on the other hand, even in the process of their realization, the ends for the most part only exist in consciousness as ends-in-view.

The unexpectedly strong resistance that reality gives to the realization of revolutionary ends is not the most serious difficulty encountered by the revolutionary movement.

The possibility that it may prefer its activities, institutions and organizations to its ends represents an even greater danger. Revolutionary ends may be threatened by revolutionary means even more than by actual conditions. Therefore a break with the past in the name of the radical ends is frequently not so radical as it seems: the revolutionary movement makes an absolute of itself and fosters the great historical illusion. This factor; generally not taken into account when revolutionary movements try to anticipate the final outcome of their efforts. Thus some great revolutions have been defeated by the operation of this factor rather than by their enemies.

The emancipation of revolutionary means from the assigned ends and their finalization are a form of alienation: the revolutionary activity and its creations escape from the control of revolutionaries and begin to rule over them.

Unfortunately, the press of the finalization of means and the instrumentalization of ends is usually already well advanced by the time a greater number of revolutionaries begin to notice it. The observation that their own movement creates the same kind of evil as the world they had rebelled against is for them a source of utter dismay. It leads them either to disappointment, or to rationalization, or, more rarely, to rebellion. As a rule, the rebel is eliminated politically, and sometimes physically as well. Others are unable to live and act for a long period with the awareness of the rift between [34/35] their own words (ends) and actions (means). Thus, for the most part, they regain the certainty in the essential harmony between the real and the verbal revolutionary teleology, and revert to the belief in the essential agreement of the former with revolutionary ethics. The most obvious betrayals of the proclaimed ends are usually justified by their claim that the temporary use of unfortunate means has been made inevitable. On the ideological level, the means are still relativized in relation to ends, but this only conceals their finalization in practice. The concept of the "transitional period" is admirably suited for rationalization. For many people this period permits temporary moral unscrupulousness. On the contrary, socialism is obliged to realize some of the elements of the future period‑communism‑which it is assumed to precede and lead to.

It seems that the theory of the unconscious should be more extensively applied to revolutionary groups. The phenomenon of inversion of means and ends suggests that from the beginning subconscious ends were hidden behind the conscious ones. The conscious ends whose axis is the ideal of the classless and stateless society serve in those cases to conceal the subconscious desire of the movement (or of its part) to make its power absolute. Some Marxists had unintentionally made this easier by giving simplified and ultimately incorrect definitions of the goal of the socialist revolution, e.g., "the goal of the revolution is the seizure of power".

If a communist party degenerates, this is as a rule concealed with the help of ultimate ends. On the other hand. the original ends of the workers' movement are usually openly abandoned by social democrats, whose struggle completely concentrates on what formerly were only means. It is hardly possible to find a more sincere statement than Bernstein's: "The movement is everything‑the ends are nothing". Where the positivistic interpretation of Marxism had prevailed, as it was the case with the social democrats of the Second International, the revolutionary humanistic ends were abandoned. The rationalization was achieved here mainly by insistence on "political realism".

Stalinists pervert the humanistic revolutionary ends, while the opportunist completely ignore them. But the ultimate outcome is common to both: exclusive concern with [35/36] political means and their finalization. One should bear in mind, however, that for the opportunists this process has been completed before they eventually rise to power, while for the Stalinists it usually begins after the power has been seized. Thus to the degenerated communists, too, the ends are nothing and the movement is everything (although only implicitly). Their ultimate‑although probably unconscious‑end is the same as the opportunists': to take power.

It is instructive to trace the way in which the utopian humanism of revolutionaries may also lead to the finalization of means. I take "Utopianism" here to mean an excessive orientation to ends, such that the existence of appropriate means is considered irrelevant to the adoption of ends. Frequent consequences of Utopianism are independence, alienation and tyranny of means. When the ends show themselves in irreconcilable conflict with reality, the revolutionaries either become passive, and may even come to accept nihilism, or they try willfully to impose the ends on reality. Of course, there is also a third possibility: the abandonment of the utopian elements in the ends without the abandonment of the essentials of the humanistic programme.

For the organization which stubbornly tries to realize utopian ends there is only one solution: politics at any cost. Brutality of means increases with the difficulties that prevent the realization of ends and vice versa: the extreme harshness of means has to be justified by invoking extremely utopian ends. The degenerated Utopian thus succumbs to fanaticism and completely ignores the real historical possibilities.


The axis of the entire process of finalization of revolutionary means is the finalization of the revolutionary organization. It is accompanied by the finalization of the revolutionary state, revolutionary violence, economic and technical development, planning, etc. I shall consider here only the finalization of revolutionary organization and of revolutionary violence.

In Tsarist Russia, the working class represented only a small minority of the population. One of the necessary [36/37] preconditions of socialist revolution, according to Marx, was thus absent. Under such circumstances a great danger existed that the working class in its role of the main protagonist of the revolution might be replaced by a narrower social group, i.e. the communist party. The principle of allegiance to the party (partiinost), even more than the principle of allegiance to the class, is susceptible of interpretation in two different directions. It can be taken to imply transcendence of the narrow party horizons towards the universally human. On the other hand, it can be understood to prescribe the closing of party ranks to outside influence. The former interpretation presupposes the desirability of openness and generosity, the latter the desirability of exclusiveness and sectarianism, This dilemma indicates what may be the principal danger for the revolutionary avant-garde in the achievement of its historical mission. Without exceptional moral strength the avant-garde is powerless to resist temptations concealed in one side of this dilemma. The historical mission of the revolutionary avant-garde is characterised by the presence of tension and not only of unity between allegiances to party, class and humanity.

According to Marxism, the revolutionary avant-garde mediates between the immediate and the historical interests of the working class (the latter are ex hypothesi identical with the interests of humanity), and also between the working class "in itself" and the working class "for itself". But here we must take account of the real possibility that the revolutionary organization may misuse its role as the representative of general interests and of the future. That possibility is doubled when the working class represents only a small minority of the population. It is a fundamental paradox of the communist movement under such conditions that it has to interpret the interests of a class whose development it is making possible. By misusing the distinction between the immediate and the historical interests of the working class, the party can jeopardize the real interests of that class.

The degradation of social democracy was a consequence of the opportunistic preference of the immediate to the historical interests of the working class. The degradation of a great number of communist parties has manifested itself [37/38] in the opposite way, as a left, actually a pseudo-left radicalism. After the seizure of power those parties had completely monopolized it. There are no legal opportunities to exercise influence on the party. The possibilities of concealed political influence are not very strong either, while political pressure is completely excluded.

The communist party appears here as a kind of causa sui with respect to its own morality. Its political practice is dependent principally on its moral strength. Since there exists no effective influence and control of the party, and since the revolution anyway brings the relativization of all previous values, the party can easily jeopardize certain already accumulated humanistic values. If this possibility is realized, the party becomes morally irresponsible.

The party is soon confronted with the question how to avoid moral pessimism without succumbing to naive and unreasonable moral optimism. The first attitude represents a rationalization of its lasting monopolization of power, of its complete distrust of other members of the society and of its boundless self-assurance and arrogance. The second attitude would under given conditions encourage anarchy and ultimately lead to counter-revolution.

This momentous choice between further monopolization and gradual demonopolization imposes itself shortly after the power has been seized. As I have repeatedly insisted elsewhere, we are confronted here with a basic historical dilemma between statism and socialism. The revolutionary organization is unable to derive lasting strength exclusively from its own moral and political potential. The only right solution lies in the liberation of other socialist forces (principally the working class) capable of influencing, correcting and controlling the revolutionary organization; this amounts to a consistent democratization. The dialectical relation between the revolutionary avant-garde on the one hand, and the masses, on the other, should not be restrained but deliberately given free play. Otherwise the revolutionary avant-garde becomes the main force in hindering socialism, and may even create a new oligarchic-statist class system. Although its aim has been the liberation of man, the avant-garde may soon enslave both its own members and the entire society. The necessity of choice I have described above generates severe conflict between party members, especially between [38/39] those in power. The moral tragedy of a part of the communist movement may to a large extent be explained by reference to this dilemma and its consequences.

Revolutions are usually accompanied by the explosion of boundless hopes. That is why their betrayal is a cause of the explosion of boundless disappointment, bitterness and pessimism. Becoming aware of the signs of the degeneration of their own movement, many revolutionaries, bewildered, ask themselves: how, why and since when? Their predicament recalls the fate of many noble and revolutionary groups in the past. The seizure of power leads to the appearance of new, special interests which profoundly affect the totality of revolutionary consciousness. Hitherto unknown possibilities and ends appear. The victorious revolutionary organization is transformed into state administration, and the revolutionaries are soon in danger of retiring before the bureaucrats. The traditional wisdom of the saying that power corrupts naturally comes into mind here. If the revolutionary party chooses the alternative of further monopolization of the social life, it will very soon be infected by dangerous viruses. It is sufficient to mention here only two of them: careerism and privileges.

The change of the revolutionary organization into the ruling party makes it attractive for the careerists. The party has to acquire a mass basis in order to avoid sectarianism, but this inevitably entails the admission of careerists. In peaceful times the careerists are able to satisfy easily the criterion of political activism, for under those conditions this criterion is not sufficiently revealing of the real motivation for joining the party. Experience shows that the so-called purges are not only unsuccessful as a weapon against careerism, but, on the contrary, contribute to the negative selection of party membership by enabling the careerists to persecute honest members. Similar measures can be only palliative since they do not strike at the roots of careerism, the monopolistic position of the party in society. As long as its position remains monopolistic, the party is unable to solve the following moral paradox: an organization with completely privileged social position should be joined only because of its humanistic ideals. The party will cease to attract careerists only when joining it would bring nothing but greater obligations. [39/40]

Once the party is in power, some of its members begin to exploit the revolution, and cease to live for it, as they had previously done. Their demand for sacrifice to revolutionary ideals slowly ceases to guide their own behaviour. But, as Alfred Adler says, "It is easier to fight for principles than to live according to them". The care for revolutionary cadres becomes an excuse for privileges. The borderline between the moral use of power and the misuse of it is easy to cross without noticing it. In succumbing to this temptation an individual shows that envy was (probably unconsciously) an element of his motivation for the struggle against the rich and the powerful. The attractions of privileges are certainly hard to resist. However, the men who are unable to resist them at the same time pretend to represent the ideological and political avant-garde. But this claim is groundless if it does not rest on moral distinction. Attempts to justify privileges usually consist in pointing out that they are not undeserved and, moreover, that they represent a "trifle" in comparison with the national income. But in an underdeveloped country privileges seem psychologically far larger than in a developed one. One should also bear in mind that they are of the utmost moral and political consequence. Besides, the material privileges are just an expression of the generally privileged social status.

It is worth mentioning that the privileged often lead in the abstract criticism of privileges. They hypocritically recommend the genuine critics to refrain from "moralistic" criticism of the privileged individuals and replace it with the criticism of the system which renders the privileges possible. As if those two kinds of criticism were mutually exclusive, and the criticism of the privileged were not only a concrete instance of the criticism of the system! When such "theoretical" advice fails, the criticism is stifled by administrative intervention. Measures are taken against the critics, and not against the privileged. This is the result of the "power" of the critics and the "powerlessness" of the privileged.

It should be said, however, that social conditions and historical circumstances strongly favoured the alternative of monopolization, which generated the moral degeneration of the avant-garde. The difficulties of a situation which demands a far-reaching historical choice give to the moral strength of the avant-garde an additional significance; its essential [40/41] moral and historical merit in such a situation is very great indeed. But if the avant-garde fails, the difficulties of the situation cannot annul its moral and historical responsibility, for the issue has primarily depended on its own qualities. Since the revolutionary organization has monopolized the moral and historical right to the leadership of society, the whole burden of the historical and moral responsibility at these historical crossroads lies on its shoulders. The criterion of achievement is severe in proportion to the greatness of the pretensions the movement has entertained. The avant-garde manifests the maximum of moral consistency and its moral merit is highest when it begins to draw the masses into the process of assuming social responsibility.

The situation in the world communist movement was an additional factor operating against the choice of a genuine revolutionary way. Under the appearance of solidarity and internationalism the movement had been reduced to complying with the interests of a single national movement. Thus the other national movements lost or were never able to gain autonomy, freedom and equality. Extraordinary moral strength and courage were needed to say "No" in 1948 and take the risk of exclusion, isolation and uncertainty for the sake of dignity. The moral and historical merit of Yugoslav communists is consequently very great. It gains additional significance if one bears in mind the chain of far-reaching consequences of this first breakthrough as well as the tragic divisions that had to be overcome in their own ranks. His extreme trust in physical power made Stalin necessarily overlook the extraordinary moral strength of the Yugoslav communists.

The essential purpose of the revolutionary organization consists in the realization of the humanistic programme. The organization is in fact self-critical only in so far as it achieves self-control with respect to this basic function. To be a revolutionary organization is not only to act for the sake of chosen historical ends but also to adapt incessantly its structure and mode of action to those ends. Stalinists, and more recently Maoists, have treated the organization as if it were a metaphysical entity.

There are several factors which favour the transformation of the revolutionary organization into an end for itself and ultimately into means for inhumane ends; e.g., the inevitable [41/42] difficulties attending its creation and the struggle to seize, power, and the length of the period the organization is the indisputable leader of a society. In a situation of this kind the organization slowly acquires more importance than the original ends. The paradox of organization‑which is in fact an instance of the paradox of means‑may be stated as follows: in order to succeed in the underground struggle for the achievement of humanistic ends, the revolutionaries have to form a completely centralized organization with strict hierarchy and lack of democracy; once they succeed such an organization tends to impose itself as an end in itself jeopardizing the proclaimed ends. To make matters more grotesque, parties of this kind often "reorganize" themselves, remaining in the vicious circle of changing concrete organizational schemes without questioning the fundamental principles of organization and action. The analysis of the process of finalization should not remain at the level of the organization as a whole. In fact, the leading hierarchy is finalized while the bulk of the party is transformed into its instrument. The organization is now divided into "ordinary" members and those who possess power, status and privileges. The party apparatus maintains this division by ideological and political means, and also by force which is readily available since it has complete control of the state power. The final result is then paradoxical: the revolutionaries have willingly associated to fight for the disalienation, but the organization has become alienated from them and is a source of new forms of alienation in the society as a whole. One is reminded here of Mephistopheles' words to Faust: "Free at your first step, at the second you are a slave".

Soon after the seizure of power there comes the moment when the attention should be paid not only to the organization but also to the individuality of its members. Organization is able to overcome the powerlessness of individualism, but it is no guarantee against obsession with organization. Phobia for organization, characteristic of selfish individualism, is only to be cured with the help of the principle of organized personalities. The safeguard against organized impersonality lies in the realization of that principle.

One of the difficulties in maintaining moral avant-guardism (that can not be usurped but has constantly to be re-asserted) is created by the existing possibility of conflict [42/43] between loyalty to the organization (its meaning not only practical but moral as well: fulfilment of assumed moral obligations in the struggle for the humanization of the world) and moral integrity, dignity, independence, initiative and freedom of its members. Without essential democratization of the revolutionary organization those communist values are seriously threatened. A movement is really communist in character precisely in the measure that it contains realized elements of the proclaimed revolutionary ends. The principle "I serve my party" is dangerous because of its ambiguity. In the ultimate analysis, a member must not serve the party but the revolutionary ends for whose sake he is obligated to participate actively in the creation, realization and control of the party's policy. One of these ends is certainly the autonomous and free personality aware of his dignity. Without autonomy, freedom and sense of dignity an individual can only act under the illusion that he is fighting for the realization of those ends.

In History and Class Consciousness, Lukacs maintained that the communist organization imposes severe tasks on its members, and therefore represents a higher type of organization than either bourgeois parties or opportunistic parties of the working class. I think that this is only partly true. If one acquiesces in it, the results can be disastrous. In fact, the communist party should be distinguishable not only by the severe tasks imposed on its members but by the high demands they impose on it as well.

If party life is increasingly monopolized, its members become morally and politically irresponsible, shifting the burden of responsibility onto the leading hierarchy.

For its rank and file and for the society as a whole, the organization is under these circumstances identified with the bearer of absolute truth, including absolute moral truth. An organization of this kind, which finds its embodiment in the leadership, acts under the illusion of possessing absolute knowledge which comprehends absolute historical necessity. How can this leadership be anything but arrogant, conceited and intolerant?

It follows that this organization must presume itself infallible; only individual members are fallible. The assumed infallibility of the organization means in fact the assumed [43/44] infallibility of the leadership (the leadership does not say so but it acts as if it were infallible). Effective criticism of the leadership is rendered impossible both in public and inside the organization.

Since an organization of this kind (i.e. its leadership) is infallible, the possibility of conflict between individual conscience and loyalty to organization cannot be recognized.

Moreover, the subjectivism of the organization is generally rationalized as objectivism. The statement of a changed policy is usually accompanied by an argument maintaining that the previous policy was objectively necessary under the prevailing conditions. However, this is true only if the previous party decisions are taken as part of the conditions in question. The subjectivism of the party is thus revealed under its apparent objectivism. If an organization of this kind exceptionally admits error, it never states who was right; it does not even admit that anyone was right.

The result is that the members of the organization are considered to be morally and politically irresponsible if they speak up on any important point before the organization i.e. the leadership does so. The reaction of leadership often manifests more nervousness and rancour in these cases than in cases of enemy attacks. Such members are never admitted to have been right, not even when the facts had borne them out. Their ideas are often adopted in practice, but they are still condemned. It hardly needs arguing that moral self-criticism cannot be fully effective unless recognition is accorded to the person who has been right.


The moral nature of Stalinism is revealed in the clearest way in its attitude to revolutionary violence.

The armed socialist revolution is morally founded on the fact that in the world of violence, violence sometimes represents the only possible solution. The revolutionary is to that extent not only morally permitted but has a moral obligation to use violence. As long as it represents violence over violence and actually serves the humanistic ends the revolution is not in conflict with ethics. The difference between [44/45] Marxist and non-Marxist humanism is particularly clear in the context of moral dilemmas concerning revolutionary violence. All Marxists consider revolutionary violence justified under certain circumstances, while many non-Marxists humanists appeal to the sanctity of human life as an ultimate moral principle and argue that no circumstances can justify the use of revolutionary violence. But in spite of the nobility of its intentions, humanism of this kind objectively represents the tolerance of evil using force since it does not permit the oppressed to use force against evil. One should also bear in mind that a humanist from a highly developed country with democratic traditions is almost unable to understand the feelings of men who fight for the achievement of humanistic ends in despotism and misery. Humanism which unconditionally excludes the use of revolutionary violence is simply irrelevant to situations of this kind.

On the other hand, there are no reasons which could justify the unrestricted use of revolutionary violence defended by some Marxists. Other Marxists wish to avoid the difficult defense of revolutionary violence on moral grounds; they insist on the incontrovertible fact of revolutionary violence and argue that it is a question of small importance whether it can be morally justified. Yet this is not true: the actions of the revolutionaries during the revolution is certain to leave deep traces on their character and represent one of the determining influences on their behaviour after they had seized power. A consistent revolutionary is always under obligation to ask himself whether humanistic ends are really rendered possible by the use of revolutionary violence. Closer analysis reveals that this question breaks up into the following ones: first, does the revolutionary try to use violence only in the measure that it is absolutely necessary? Second, is he aware that violence is always a source of moral snares to the revolution, regardless of the care with which it is used and of its necessity for the elimination of obstacles to the humanization of society? And third, against whom is the violence used?

Without this self-control revolutionary violence changes into sadistic cruelty. It is true, as someone has said that "the transition from a less extreme to a more extreme form of violence is imperceptible, but after that a step backwards is extremely difficult". Unfortunately, the net balance of [45/46] violence used in revolutions is generally not proportionate to the seriousness of actual circumstances ("the surplus of violence"). This hypertrophy of violence is responsible for the death of many innocent people. Yet generosity should be a lasting virtue of every true revolutionary, for it is better that many guilty persons escape revolutionary justice than that it be sullied by the death of a single innocent man. Under the cover of revolutionary violence it is sometimes possible to find personal feuds and complete ruthlessness. Revolutionary violence will become perverted if the revolutionaries forget that it can only remove obstacles but never give a positive solution.

In reply to Kautsky's criticism of the Russian Revolution, Lenin wrote: "Dictatorship is a form of state power which relies directly on violence and is not bound by laws. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is a form of state power taken from the bourgeoisie and maintained against it by the violence of the proletariat, a form of state power not bound by laws". (3) But this is only partly true. In its own humanistic interest, the socialist revolution should tie its own hands with laws and independent judiciary as soon as possible. The revolution is certainly illegal in relation to the pre-revolutionary legal system, but it does not follow that law as such is a bourgeois phenomenon and that revolution should not set legal limits to its arbitrary power. Otherwise it will be jeopardized by its own arbitrariness more seriously than by all counterrevolutionary actions. Stalinism creates legal order in a caricature form since it only protects the state from its citizens without protecting the citizens from the state. Trotsky's reply to Kautsky's Terrorism and Communism (1919) reveals how a great revolutionary may lack a moral sensitiveness for the problems of revolution. Kautsky criticized the Bolsheviks for the taking of hostages, mass executions and punitive expeditions; he objected to them even when they had been a reaction against similar actions of the counterrevolution. It must be said that Kautsky's final conclusion is not acceptable. Namely appealing to the sanctity of human life as an ultimate moral principle, he actually accused the Bolsheviks for raising the revolution in a country as backward as Russia. In his reply Trotsky did not concentrate on the moral justification of the [46/47] net balance of the revolution. He tried to justify its every action, demonstrating in my opinion, an insufficient awareness of the great moral problems involved in the use of revolutionary violence. His counter-accusations concerning "Kantian preaching" and "Quaker babble about the sanctity of life" did not remove the problems and dilemmas posed by Kautsky. I shall now give several quotations typical of Trotsky's view:  (4)

"The revolution demands from the working class to achieve its end by all means that are at its disposal".

"The question of the form or the severity of reprisals is not, of course, a question of 'principle'. It is a question of expediency".

The extreme shallowness of Trotsky's position on the difference between the Red and the White Terror is well brought out in the following passage: "Terror is meaningless, or rather, is so in the ultimate analysis when it is used by the reaction against the class which advances with historical inevitability. But terror can be expedient if it is used against the reactionary class, which does not wish to leave the stage".

The same weaknesses are apparent nearly twenty years (1938) later in Trotsky's article "Their Morals and Ours" which was justly criticized by John Dewey. The accusations of occasional moral irresponsibility and ruthlessness in the Russian Revolution are facilely rejected with the statement that the "Revolution is a product of class society and necessarily possesses its features". (5) Morality is for Trotsky entirely class-relative, and contains no elements of the universally human that could constitute a ground of obligation for the revolution. He does say that the revolution is permitted to use only those means that lead to the liberation of man; but he shows extreme moral indulgence to concrete means, even the harshest and most excessive ones, without seriously considering the question of their real contribution to the liberation of man.

For the true revolutionary the value of violence is exclusively instrumental, and he is justified in using it only under certain circumstances. The Stalinist, on the other hand, [47/48] treats it as an end for itself and ultimately as a means for counter-revolutionary ends. Although he tries to justify his use of violence by implicating it with Marx's theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat, he is theoretically closer to Sorel, who defended the moral irresponsibility and ruthlessness of the class struggle in his famous Reflections on Violence. According to Sorel, violence in the class struggle and revolution should be treated in the same manner as violence in war, i.e. exclusively from the point of view of strategic calculations and of its expediency in bringing about the total defeat of the enemy. Sorel even maintained that "Violence is the source of those high moral values with which socialism will save the world". (6); In fact, for its high moral values, socialism is indebted to all but violence. Violence is only a means to seize power and nothing more.

The Stalinists have continually extended the rule of terror, using as a pretext the thesis that the class struggle is intensified under socialism. But even if this thesis were true, it would still be false that the revolutionary dictatorship is the same thing as the physical annihilation of the members of the dispossessed classes. The first symptom of the pathological condition of the revolution is the transformation of the class struggle from an attempt at dissolution of a class as a social group into the massacre of its members. Terror against allied classes is the next step. The bloody collectivization in the countryside demonstrated beyond doubt that the Stalinists were more eager to effect a change of ownership of land than to spare the lives of millions of peasants.

The ruthlessness of the counter-revolution was the second pretext of the Stalinists for the extension of terror; e.g., the Bolsheviks have abolished capital punishment, but counterrevolutionary terror compelled them to introduce it again. But this also does not represent an adequate justification, even if we disregard the fact that more revolutionaries than counter-revolutionaries have fallen as victims of the Stalinist terror. If a communist is not satisfied unless he answers in the same manner the sadistic cruelties of the enemy, in what way do they differ? The Red Terror which acts in this manner against the White Terror imperceptibly changes colour, in spite of the proclaimed humanistic ends. [48/49]

The Stalinists stand morally condemned by each of the three criteria I have given for the use of revolutionary violence: they use violence unrestrictedly, without scruples and against the revolutionaries. In their hands revolutionary violence is transformed into the violence against revolution. Permanent revolution, in the sense of constant resolute action for the achievement of humanistic revolutionary ends, has been replaced by permanent terror. This pathology of revolutionary violence still awaits serious study. Revolutionary vigilance has been perverted into paranoiac suspiciousness of everyone. The social paranoia ‑ the madness of violence — still greater paranoia ‑ larger massacres ‑ this circle was repeated many times. The pathology of revolutionary violence is a vivid expression of the entire Stalinist pathology of the revolution. Can anything be spared by the men who have no consideration for human life and are entirely ruthless even when the lives of their comrades are involved?


(1) K. Marx. Werke, MEGA, Abt. 1, Bd. 1, S. 211.

(2) It is possible to refute G. L. Kline's thesis that Marx was a "humanist of ideals" (or of the future) without being a "humanist of principles" (or of present). See G. L. Kline, "Was Marx an Ethical Humanist", Akten des XIV. Kongresses für Philosophie, II, S. 69-73. Marx's statement on means and ends which I have quoted above seems to be inconsistent with Kline's interpretation. According to Kline, Marx maintains that man possesses intrinsic value only as a member of the future classless society. Kline then easily infers that Marx's humanism was only apparent and that it has naturally led to Stalinism.

(3) V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, II, 2, p. 17 (Beograd, 1950)

(4) The three following quotations are all taken from Lj. Tadić and T. Indjić (eds.), The Party of the Proletariat (Beograd, 1966)

(5) See The New International, July and August, 1938.

(6) G. Sorel. Reflexions sur la Violence, p. 49 (Paris, 1908)

SOURCE: Stojanović, Svetozar. “Revolutionary Teleology and Ethics,” in Tolerance and Revolution: A Marxist-non-Marxist Humanist Dialogue, edited by Paul Kurtz and Svetozar Stojanović (Beograd: Philosophical Society of Serbia, 1970), pp. 29-49 [Section I, Chapter II].

Note: Footnotes have been reformatted as endnotes for convenience of reference.

See also “Commentary on Stojanović” by (1) Andre Niel; (2) Staniša Novaković.

The State of Humanity and the Transition from Communism to Capitalism
by Svetozar Stojanović

Black Folk and the Struggle in ‘Philosophy’ by Lucius T. Outlaw

Secular Humanism—Ideology, Philosophy, Politics, History: Bibliography in Progress

Yugoslav Praxis Philosophy Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Paul Kurtz and Marxist Humanism @ Reason & Society

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