Moral Relativism in Totalitarian Dictatorships

Sir Isaiah Berlin, Vico and the Origins of the Rejection of Absolute Moral Values

One of the defining features of contemporary Postmodernism is its rejection of an absolute, transcendent morality. All societies are seen as equally valid in their worldviews, and attempts to evaluate them according to a particular system of morality are attacked as both philosophically incorrect and immoral. Indeed, the belief in an objective morality is viewed as one of the components of western imperialism and the horrific totalitarianisms of the 20th century. The attitude is not new, and certainly not pointless. The view that each period of history possessed its own unique morality goes back to the 17th -18th century philosopher, Giambattista Vico. In his book, Scienza Nuova (New Science), published in 1725, Vico argued that human history was divided into distinct cultural periods, so these periods could only be properly understood on their own terms. Vico’s view was championed after the War by the great British philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was horrified at the absolute moral authority claimed and demanded by the Fascist and Communist regimes. He was a leading figure during the Cold War of the 1950s to trace, explain and attack their ideological roots. He was particularly instrumental in making contact with an supporting some of the leading Soviet dissidents. Berlin attempted to counter their claims to absolute moral authority by denying the existence of absolute, unviersal moral values. He attempted to avoid the opposite pitfall of moral nihilism by stating that there were, however, certain values that acted as if they possessed a universal validity. One of these, for example, is the obvious injunction against killing innocents.

Franz Boas and Anthropological Opposition to Nazism and Racism

The view that every culture possesses its own unique worldview, and should be appreciated and assessed according to its values, rather than those of the West, was also pioneered by Franz Boas. Boas was a German anthropologist who migrated to America before the Second World War. He worked extensively among the Native American peoples, including the Inuit. Boas was Jewish, and had been driven out of his homeland by the Nazis. He formulated his rejection of a dominant, universal morality as a way of attacking the racist morality promoted by and supporting the Nazi regime. At the same time, he also sought to protect indigenous peoples against the assaults on their culture by Western civilisation under the view that such peoples were also morally and culturally inferior.

Moral Relativism in Hegel and Nietzschean Nihilism

In fact, the modern rejection of eternal, univeral moral values predates Berlin. It emerged in the 19th century in Hegelian philosophy and Nietzsche’s atheist existentialism. The attitude that there were no universal moral values, and that morality was relative, became increasingly strong after the First World War. Many Western intellectuals felt that the horrific carnage had discredited Western culture and the moral systems that had justified such mass slaughter. It was because of this background of cultural and moral relativism that Einsteins’s Theory of Relativity, which in fact has nothing to say about morality, was seized on by some philosophers as scientific justification for the absence of universal moral values.

Hegel viewed history as created through a process of dialectical change, as nations and cultures rose, fell and were superseded by higher cultures. As nations, states and cultures changed, so did ideas, and so there could be no universal ethical system. Furthermore, some events were beneficial even though they could not be justified by conventional morality. For example, those sympathetic to the Anglo-Saxons would argue that the Norman Conquest was immoral. Nevertheless, the Conquest also brought cultural and political advances and improvements. The dialectal process thus validated the Norman Conquest, even though the Conquest itself, by the standards of conventional morality, could be seen as morally wrong.

Apart from Hegel, Neitzsche also argued that without God, there were no objective moral standards. The individual was therefore free to create his own morals through heroic acts of will.

Hegel’s philosophy, although authoritarian, was developed to justify the new ascendant position of the Prussian monarchy after the Napoleonic Wars. The new Germany of the Hohenzollerns was, in his view, the culmination of the dialectal process. Nietzsche himself was a defender of aristocratic values, who despised the nationalism of the Wihelmine monarchy and the new mass politics. Despite their personal politics, elements of Hegelian philosophy became incorporated into Fascism and Communism, while Italian Fascism also contained the same atheist existentialism. Mussolini had been a radical Socialist before the foundation of the Fascist party and its alliance with and absorbtion of aggressively anti-socialist movements and parties. Even then, the party still contained radical socialist and particularly anarcho-syndicalist elements. These took their inspiration from the French Syndalist writer, Georges Sorel. Sorel considered that in the absence of universal moral values, what mattered was emotion and struggle. It was only in revolutionary conflict that the individual became truly free. This irrationalism thus served to justify the Fascist use of force and governments by elites, who rejected conventional morality.

Marx, Lenin and Moral Relativism

Marx followed Hegel in rejecting the existence of universal moral values. According to his doctrine of dialectal materialism, cultures and moral values were merely the ideological superstructure created by the economic basis of society. As the economic systems changed, so did a society’s culture and moral code. Moreover, each culture’s system of morality was appropriate for its period of economic and historical development. R.N. Carew Hunt in his examination of Communist ideology, The Theory and Practive of Communism, notes that the Communist Manifesto is the most powerful indictment of capitalism. It does not, however, condemn it as a morally wrong or unjust. When it does describe capitalism as exploitive, it is simply as a system of social relations, rather than a moral judgement. He quotes Marx’s own statement of Communist morality in his Ant-Duhring:

‘We therefore reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate, and for ever immutable moral law on the pretext that the moral world too has its permanent principles which transcend history and the differences between nations. We maintain on the contrary that all former moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society had reached at that particular epoch. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on teh whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, cannot be doubted. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which transcends class antagonisms and their legacies in thought becomes possible only at a stage of society whicdh has not only overcome class contradictions but has even forgotten them in practical life.’

Lenin’s own view of Marxist morality was expressed in his Address to the 3rd Congress of the Russian Young Communist League of 2nd October 1920:

‘Is there such a thing as Communist ethics? Is there such a thing as Communist morality? Of course there is. It is often made to appear that we have no ethics of our own; and very often the bourgeoisie accuse us Communists of repudiating all ethics. This is a method of throwing dust in the eyes of the workers and peasants.

In what sense doe we repudiate ethics and morality?

In the sense that it is preached by the bourgeoisie, who derived ethics from God’s commandments … Or instead of deriving ethics from the commandments of God, they derived them from idealist or semi-idealist phrases, which always amounted to something very similar to God’s commandments. We repudiate all morality derived from non-human and non-class concepts. We say that it is a deception, a fraud in the interests of the landlords and capitalists. We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat. Our morality is derived from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat…The class struggle is still continuing…We subordinate our communist morality to this task. We say: morality is what serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the toilers around the proletariat, which is creating a new communist society .. We do not believe in an eternal morality’.

Communist Morality Justified Brutality, against Judeo-Christian Values in British Ethical Socialism

The result was a highly utilitarian moral attitude which justified deceit, assassination and mass murder on the grounds that this assisted the Revolution and the Soviet system as the worker’s state. As the quotes from Lenin makes blatantly clearly, Communist morality was completely opposed to Western religious values. This amoral attitude to politics and human life and worth was condemned by members of the democratic left, such as Harold Laski, and Christian Socialists such as Kingsley Martin. In the June 1946 issue of New Statesman, Martin declared that Soviet morality was completely opposed to the Greco-Roman-Christiain tradition that stressed the innate value of the individual moral conscience. Christian socialism was a strong element in the British Labour party. Reviewing a history of the British working class’ reading over a decade ago, The Spectator stated that it wasn’t surprising that Communism didn’t get very far in Wales, considering that most of the members of the Welsh Labour party in the 1920 were churchgoing Christians who listed their favourite book as the Bible. As a result, the Russian Communists sneered at the Labour part for its ethical socialism. This was held to provide an insufficient basis for socialism, unlike Marx’s ‘scientific socialism’. If anything, the opposite was true.

Moral Relativism Does Not Prevent, But Can Even Support Totalitarianism

Now this does not mean that there is anything inherently totalitarian about moral relativism. Indeed, it is now used to justify opposition and resistance to Western imperialism and exploitation. It does not, however, provide a secure basis for the protection of those economic or ethnic groups seen as most vulnerable to such treatment.If there are no universal moral values, then it can also be argued that totalitarian regimes and movements also cannot be condemned for their brutal treatment of the poor, political opponents, and the subjugation or extermination of different races or cultures. Indeed, Marx and Engels looked forward to the disappearance of backward ethnic groups, like the Celts in Britain and France, and Basques in Spain as Capitalism advanced. When the various slavonic peoples in the German and Austro-Hungarian Empire revolted in the home of gaining independence in 1848, they condemned them as a threat to their own working-class movement and looked forward to a racial war against them. Their statement there presages the mass deportations and persecution of various ethnic minorities, including Cossacks, Ukrainians, Jews and some of the Caucasian Muslim peoples by the Stalinist state. And as it has been shown, moral relativism formed part of Italian Fascist and Russian Communist ideology.

Ability of Objective Morality to Defend Different Culture’s Right to Existence and Dignity

In fact you don’t need moral relativism to defend the rights of different peoples to dignity and the value of their culture. The very existence of human rights, including the rights of different ethnic groups to existence and the possession of their own culture, is based on the idea of an objective morality. All that is needed is to accept that each culture also has its own intrinsic moral value. One can and should be able to argue that certain aspects of another culture are objectively wrong, such as those institutions that may also brutalise and exploit women and outsiders to that culture. One can also recognise that these aspects do not necessarily invalidate the whole of that culture, or justify the brutalisation or extermination of its people.

Sources

R.N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1950)

David Fernbach (ed.), Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth: Penguin/ New Left Review 1973)

The Seizure of Power – this study of the rise of Italian Fascism and Mussolini’s coup.

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One Response to “Moral Relativism in Totalitarian Dictatorships”

  1. Ilíon Says:

    One of the defining features of contemporary Postmodernism is its rejection of an absolute, transcendent morality. All societies are seen as equally valid in their worldviews, and attempts to evaluate them according to a particular system of morality are attacked as both philosophically incorrect and immoral. Indeed, the belief in an objective morality is viewed as one of the components of western imperialism and the horrific totalitarianisms of the 20th century.

    And the irony seems utterly lost on the typical post-modernist.

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