Do the ends justify the means?

The real question, as Leon Trotsky wrote, is, "What justifies the ends?"

IN ONE of many fruitless arguments, I remember my father attacking Marxism for believing that "the ends justify the means." By this, he meant that Marxists have no moral scruples and will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at pdamato@isreview.org.

Ironically, this was the same person who once told me, with a straight face, that the U.S. had to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki "to save lives."

In fact, every ruling class in the world operates on the assumption that the "ends justifies the means." In every war, these rulers risk the lives of millions of ordinary soldiers on both sides in order to control some market, some bit of land or some slice of power.

The U.S. government imposed a decade of debilitating economic sanctions on Iraq, resulting in the deaths of more than 1 million people--half of them children. The stated aim was to eliminate Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction."

But lraq's military capabilities have been smashed. The real reason for sanctions is to assert U.S. dominance in the Middle East--to show that if any country steps out of line, it will be devastated.

Asked by a reporter in 1995 if killing half a million Iraqi children was "worth it," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright responded that "the price, we think, is worth it." She certainly thinks that the end justifies the means.

"The ruling class," wrote Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in his book, Their Morals and Ours, "forces its ends upon society and habituates it to considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral. That is the chief function of official morality."

It is therefore "immoral" to kill in peacetime but a sacred duty to kill in war. It is impermissible for strikers to use force to stop a scab crossing a picket line but obligatory for a police officer to use force to break up that same picket line.

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THE REAL question for socialists, as Trotsky wrote, is this: "What justifies the ends?"

In the American Civil War of 1861-65, for example, both sides engaged in similar acts of violence. But one side was fighting to defend slavery and the other to end it.

As Trotsky wrote: "Armies in combat are always more or less symmetrical; were there nothing in common in their methods, they could not inflict blows upon each other."

Yet there's a fundamental difference between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed.

"A slaveholder who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains," wrote Trotsky, "and a slave who through cunning and violence breaks the chains--let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!"

For Trotsky, this didn't mean a blanket support of all violence. "In our eyes," he wrote, "individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness and turns their eyes and hopes toward a great avenger and liberator."

The total transformation of society--from top to bottom--simply can't be achieved through isolated acts of individuals or small groups.

As Trotsky concluded: "A means can only be justified by its end. But the end in turn needs to be justified."

For Marxists:

the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of humanity over nature and to the abolition of the power of one person over another. Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression...imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle.

Precisely from this, it flows that not all means are permissible.

When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us, the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts: or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the "leaders."

First published in the September 15, 2000, issue of Socialist Worker.