A Means to an End (of Exploitation): Marxism and Utilitarianism

Over the past hundred years, I won’t deny that many ruthless and otherwise unjustifiable acts have been carried out in the name of socialism. Sometimes, these actions were directly harmful (such as the use of state terror), whereas in other examples they were not (such as the introduction of strict economic policies that later caused suffering), yet many perished all the same. This is why communists today, require adequate justification for what’s been going on in these countries, and it would seem to me that this comes most naturally in the argument that the end may justify the means, or if you’re Trotsky, ‘the end may justify the means so long as there is something that justifies the end’ (I know it sounds slightly pretentious).

This is a core idea of utilitarianism, an ethical theory predating Marxism, which argues in a very general sense that an action is defined in terms of its consequences. Thus even concepts like genocide, which we’d normally consider horrific, are permissible if they bring about greater happiness than would have otherwise been the case, the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people lying at the heart of the philosophy. Just from this, one can see key similarities between Marxist and utilitarian thought; they both exist with an eye to the majority; they both strive for the wellbeing of the masses, and in both schools of thought it is upheld that violence, be it in the case of class conflict (Marxism) or the ‘Trolley Problem’ (utilitarianism) may be used to achieve the greater good. So I’m writing to discuss the similarities between these two philosophies, whether or not Marxism can operate in a utilitarian way – or vice versa – and finally, whether or not utilitarianism successfully justifies the many otherwise-atrocious actions committed in communism’s name.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that Marx’s ideas entail an element of sacrifice. Friedrich Engels once stated that ‘The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of reactionary peoples.’, and the fact that he followed it up with ‘this too, will be a step forward’ confirms the utilitarian character of such thinking, which treated these horrors as a necessary part of the communist struggle. On top of this, it has to be remembered that Marx’s interpretation of what capitalism would inevitably lead to, whilst a scientific interpretation, also bore the label of justice, equality, and all that was right. Thus, science and morality merged with the Marxian prediction that from capitalism there would arise communism, the latter being a better moral alternative as well as an inevitable on. This was simply because it was upheld the idea of a better world, the best, in fact, of all hitherto economic systems (except possibly Primitive Communism). True, that’s an incredibly vague interpretation, but I think it’s obvious that the specific ideas of classlessness or an end of exploitation are credited as they result in a happier society. This is why the Greatest Happiness Principle, as it’s referred to, is very definitely present in scientific Marxism and underpins the core Marxist ideas and theories.

If we can thus accept that these ideas are utilitarian ones, I think it’s also true that they are justified in a utilitarian way. The kind of violence Marx and Engels spoke of wasn’t without reason; why would anybody advocate ruthlessness when they didn’t feel it was necessary? And when I talk of its necessity, I refer to progression – forward movement in the direction of liberty and equality – in the direction of greater happiness. It could be argued that Marxism is not a science and that communism is not an absolute truth, so therefore there’s nothing to justify what has been done in its name, yet firstly, whether or not Marx was right is separate debate, and secondly, even if Marx was proven wrong; even if we find that there is no inevitability in communism, such a brilliant concept is surely still worth fighting for.

I conclude by saying that Marxism’s utilitarian nature should be realised, as the two theories will likely benefit from what the other has to provide; currently, whilst many do acknowledge why Marx’s ideas should be vindicated, many don’t, and a sturdy, underling justification would do a good job in providing a simple explanation in this regard. I think it’s even possible to argue that, similarly, utilitarianism lends itself to a Marxist interpretation, due to the ideas it values placing the state of the majority in society above all else, which is also an idea worth exploring. The political views of Jeremy Bentham, one of, if not the most important figure in the founding and development of contemporary utilitarianism, reflect this.

On Trotskyism

What is Trotskyism?

Unlike specific doctrines or philosophies such as Leninism, or perhaps Marxism in general, Trotskyism has no one definition – it is simply a collection of the ideas and theories put forward by Leon Trotsky. However, whilst perhaps not as easy to summarise as the ideas of Marx and Lenin, they are by no means insignificant, for Trotsky’s followers founded one of the two key movements which worked to redefine twentieth-century communism; alongside the Stalinist interpretation of Soviet-style Marxism (which later developed into Marxism-Leninism) Trotskyism split communism in two, forcing Marxists everywhere to take sides.

To give you an idea of what exactly it calls for, here is a brief summary of the ideas and theories it entails:

  • A strong adherence to the international revolutionary movement, which fuels the theory of Permanent Revolution (a theoretical argument that states revolution can take place in backward, agrarian countries such as Russia, so as long as there is a simultaneous international revolution to strengthen it)
  • An encouragement for the involvement of workers in the state system, and the criticism of ‘Stalinist’ regimes for their excessively bureaucratic and authoritarian interpretation of communism
  • A general critical attitude towards Stalin’s Russia and the Soviet Union after 1924, due to its betrayal of both the aforementioned values

Recently, I decided that I, myself am a Trotskyist, this being the inspiration for today’s post. For a long while I’d thought of myself as somewhere to the left of Marxism-Leninism, so I was looking closely at tendencies such as left communism, ultra-leftism and Trotskyism to try and determine which category I fell into, at which point I decided that my views represented Trotsky’s ideas more closely than anybody else’s. Given that I’ve written several paragraphs on the such ideas, you may wonder why exactly I’ve chosen to do this, or what relevance they have today that would make writing about them worthwhile. I’ll answer this in a short while – first, I think it’s important to understand them from a historical perspective, allowing us to comprehend their development in society.

Below is an excerpt from the document ‘For Trotskyism!’ which can be found on the homepage of the International Bolshevik Tendency, a modern-day Trotskyist organisation, where the movement is described…

It was verified in a positive sense in the October Revolution in 1917, the greatest event in modern history, and generally negatively since. After the bureaucratic strangulation of the Bolshevik Party and the Comintern by the Stalinists, the tradition of Leninism – the practice and program of the Russian Revolution – was carried forward by the Left Opposition and by it alone.’

This says it all: Trotskyism has a bad name. Ever since such ‘strangulation’ the idea had developed taboo connotations, even becoming an insult among communists. As a result, the number of Trotskyist movements is relatively small, and was probably even smaller in the days of the USSR. Following his departure from Soviet politics, Trotsky was the great outcast, the traitor, the enemy of the Soviet regime, and any of his followers were inevitably handed the same label.

Not surprisingly, then, no socialist states have arisen in accordance with Trotsky’s views or theories, and the few who adhere to such have been forced to get their word across through whatever tactics are available, such as electoral participation or entryism (a good example of the latter being Militant, a Trotskyist organisation in Britain working within the Labour Party throughout the 1970s and 80s). In other words, it would appear that Trotskyism, for the most part, died with Leon Trotsky.


The organisation’s logo

So, coming back to the question of relevance, it may seem to be the case that these theories, written over seventy years ago and only partially developed since, are far from relevant; one might be inclined to take the view that it was an ideology rooted out of the communist movement long ago, which has since been rejected worldwide, and even today is still on the side-lines of leftist politics. After all, Stalinism aside, who’s to say that there wasn’t a rationale behind Trotskyism’s rejection?

I, however, would disagree, and would take the view that time has actually helped prove Trotsky correct,  an example of this being the fact that his ideas are centred on a criticism of the Soviet system (or rather the Soviet system as Stalin had modelled it) and thus they deserve at least some credit, purely due to the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed. I’d see it like this: Socialism in One Country, the policy which, originally adopted under Stalin, influenced the country henceforth, halted efforts to spread the revolution beyond national boundaries. Thus the USSR, like its European satellite states, was left with no option but to try and cultivate socialism from within, which led to stagnation, corruption, and ultimately, failure. I believe that this is proof, or at least hard evidence, that Socialism in One Country is impossible, thus making Trotsky’s argument especially perceptive.

Obviously, I don’t mean to argue that Trotsky’s word was entirely unfalsified – that would be counter-scientific and thus contrary to the spirit of Marxism –, and he did create work that was also proven inaccurate, but I do believe that his ideas and his contributions to Marxist philosophy are worthy of recognition, and, what’s more, worthy of consideration today. In a world with no Soviet Union, after the fall of Stalinist communism, today’s Marxists definitely need to start searching for alternative solutions.

I’d say it’s about time, nearly a century after they were first discarded, to rediscover these theories left on history’s mantelpiece.