Their Morals and Ours

[The text of a talk given to the DSP's January 2005 Socialist Educational Conference.]

I. The big picture

Morality is an arena of struggle

Today's class struggle poses some very hard issues. Imperialism presents us with an endless list of horrible crimes. Our world is full to the brim with unending violence, pain and suffering. But the struggle against this barbarism also confronts us with some very challenging questions.

The bourgeois media constantly bombards us with its propaganda and tells us what we should think. But it is not enough simply to reject this; we must be able to independently orient ourselves on all the key questions of the day.

In class society, morality is one of the arenas in which the struggle is fought. What is our moral code? What do we support and what do we oppose? What can or should we do and what should we not do? We need a Marxist approach to this question too.

Comrades should read the various articles in the Resistance Books collection Their Morals and Ours by Trotsky, Novack, Engels and Lenin.[1] They provide a clear Marxist framework for evaluating the key questions we face. In addition, Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky's 1920 polemic against Karl Kautsky, takes up some of the key issues.

This talk will briefly sketch our basic approach, then look more concretely at some contemporary issues.

Morality is class morality

Our starting point is the frank recognition that all morality is class morality and it can't be anything else. As Trotsky puts it, "morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character".[2] We reject all notions of a supra-class morality, a morality that somehow stands above the contending social forces.

In the passage from Anti-Dühring appended to Their Morals and Ours, Engels explains that ever since the end of primitive communist society

… morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed.[3]

For us there is nothing outside of material reality. Those who say that there is some moral code or moral sense outside of that derived from the interests of specific social groups have to explain where such a code comes from.

In the Bible, Moses came down the mountain with two stone tablets from God bearing the 10 commandments. OK, this is obviously fantastic. But all claims that there is an eternal morality are really expressing religious ideas, not scientific ones. They assume the existence of a god or creator outside of the real material universe.

Ruling-class morality

Ruling-class morality is concerned with defending the interests of the bourgeoisie, that is, the interests of a tiny minority who exploit the labour of the working masses. As Trotsky explains, capitalism cannot survive through force and repression alone. "It needs the cement of morality."[4] Bourgeois morality has to present everything which threatens its interests as "immoral".

It needs a morality which teaches "slavery and submission" — that is, that the division of society into social classes, into rich and poor, is natural and eternal. There is nothing ordinary people can do about it except submit to "natural" authority (i.e., accept class-divided society as it is) and struggle to survive.

James P. Cannon's 1953 lecture, "What Socialist America Will Look Like" — which is included in our compilation Fighting for Socialism in the 'American Century'[5] — contains a section on the transformation of morality as society moves through the transition period after the revolution along the road to communism. In it Cannon gives a sharp summary of capitalist morality:

Morality which in class society is either a hypocritical cover for material self-interest, or an escapist withdrawal from the harsh realities of the class struggle, will be changed inside out. The advancement of individual special interests at the expense of others — the highest standard of capitalist society — is summed up in the slogan: "Getting Ahead" — which means, getting ahead of others. It is the root cause of lying, demagogy, and deception, which are the central features in every election campaign, in advertising, and in all mediums of information and communication. The people are bombarded with lies every day of their lives. Capitalist morality itself is a lie.[6]

The modern world abounds in obscene contrasts which illustrate the real ethical values of our rulers. Recent events provide a few striking examples:

1. The US and its allies have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into the occupation of Iraq, completely destroying Iraqi society in the process. The millions of victims of the Asian tsunami will be lucky to receive in aid even a small fraction of what has been squandered on military conquest in the interests of the US corporate plutocracy.

2. The scenes of devastation caused by the tsunami get saturation coverage in the capitalist media, right down to pictures of the countless bodies. If the same coverage was given to the carnage caused by Washington's bloody war in Iraq, it would be politically impossible for the US to continue.

3. The tsunami arose from a natural geological event but the ensuing disaster is very much a social event reflecting the perverted priorities of the capitalist system. The very poverty of these Third World countries — the generally flimsy dwellings, the weak infrastructure and services — which so magnifies the effects of the disaster is ultimately a product of the ruthless depredations of Western imperialism. We can also mention the criminal failure to set up an early warning system; the widespread destruction of protective coastal mangrove swamps for commercial development; in the midst of the carnage in Aceh the regime is still devoting precious resources to prosecuting its war against the independence movement; and in Thailand the authorities apparently had some warning but — shades of Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People — didn't pass it on for fear of wrecking the tourist industry!

4. At the same time as it was mouthing off about helping the tsunami victims — now refugees in their own countries — the Australian government took advantage of the media preoccupation with the disaster to cap off its merciless years-long pursuit of the Baktiyari refugee family by deporting them to a miserable fate in Pakistan. And it then announced that it wants them to pay $1 million for the cost of their own torment! The morality of Howard, Ruddock, Vanstone, Downer and their gang couldn't be clearer.

Morality of the future

Engels, in the excerpt appended in Their Morals and Ours, points out that a "really human morality which stands above class antagonism" will only be possible when social classes have withered away and even the very memory of them has disappeared — that is, under communism.

Cannon has something to say about this:

There can be no doubt whatever [he says] that the new society will have a different morality. It will be a social morality based on human solidarity, having no need of lies, deception, demagogy, and hypocrisy. Those who cannot conceive of any human relationship without the "getting ahead" philosophy of capitalism say socialism would not "work" because people would have no incentives. They really have a low opinion of the human race. Incentives will not be lacking. But they will be different.

For one thing public opinion, uncontaminated by phony propaganda, will be a powerful force, as it was in the unspoiled primitive societies before people knew anything about private property and special class interests.[7]

Obviously, once private property, social classes and state have long gone — and with them scarcity, fear, insecurity etc. — then killing, stealing, greed, lying and the rest will disappear because they have no longer have any material basis.

Stealing, for instance, would not exist in conditions of rational abundance and the resulting absence of private property — the very concept would not exist. Killing would likewise be unknown, unless perhaps someone's genetic template was corrupted or they accidentally swallowed some mind-deranging substance.

Proletarian morality

But here and now, socialist-proletarian morality must justify the revolt against this rotten social order and promote the struggle against it. As Trotsky puts in Their Morals and Ours:

Civilisation can be saved only by the socialist revolution. To accomplish the overturn, the proletariat needs all its strength, all its resolution, all its audacity, passion, and ruthlessness. Above all it must be completely free from the fictions of religion, "democracy", and transcendental morality — the spiritual chains forged by the enemy to tame and enslave it. Only that which prepares the complete and final overthrow of imperialist bestiality is moral, and nothing else. The welfare of the revolution — that is the supreme law![8]

So, is anything permissible? Does the end justify the means — any means? No, the end determines the means; the means cannot be in contradiction to the end. Only those actions which really lead to the liberation of humanity from capitalist barbarism are justified and moral.

Of course, these general considerations do not tell us what is or is not permissible in any given concrete case. That can only be determined by studying the actual situation. As Trotsky points out, "problems of revolutionary morality are fused with the problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics".[9]

II. Confronting issues of the class struggle

I want to take some time to illustrate Trotsky's observation by looking at various confronting aspects of today's class struggle. In no case can we make sense of them from an abstract moral standpoint but rather we must assess them politically, in the context of the struggle against imperialism.


Firstly, let's look at the question of war. Prior to the US invasion of Iraq, a vast antiwar sentiment manifested itself around the world. This led to the unprecedented outpourings in February-March last year.

However, while this sentiment is profoundly progressive, and in this instance forced Washington to modify its plans to "shock and awe" Iraq into submission, we should be clear that we are not pacifists. Although war is, as Trotsky frankly recognises, "disgusting barbarism" and we look forward to a society without war — despite all this, some wars are progressive and justified — "moral", if you like.

1. Historically, the wars fought by the rising bourgeoisie against feudalism were progressive and moved humanity forward. We can mention here the English Civil War of the 1640s which led to the defeat of the Royalists, the wars fought by revolutionary France against old Europe in the early 1790s, and the struggle waged by Lincoln's Northern Republican administration against the Southern plantation slavocracy in the US Civil War of the 1860s.

2. Wars waged by oppressed peoples for their liberation from imperialist slavery are progressive and we support them. The liberation struggle of the Iraqi people is progressive and "moral".

3. Revolutionary wars waged by the working class and its allies against the bourgeoisie and their imperialist backers — as in the 1918-20 civil war in Russia — are progressive.

Imperialism's 'war on terror'

Today we are the midst of the so-called "war on terror", in reality the post-Cold War ideological justification of the imperialist ruling classes for attacking the Third World and strengthening their repressive apparatus at home.

Obviously terrorist measures such as the bombing of the New York World Trade Centre or the Madrid train system should be condemned. And if the calculation of those responsible is that by killing thousands of innocent largely working-class people, including many of their co-religionists, you will somehow intimidate the West and rouse the Muslim world to struggle, then the whole enterprise seems truly insane.

But there is a context here. Simply branding such terrorists as evil or "immoral" doesn't advance us one bit. We have to ask why and how the phenomenon of anti-Western terrorism arose. It's hardly a revelation to point out that it has everything to do with Western domination of the Third World, with Washington's previously intimate relationship with today's terrorists and so on.

Of course, from any number of angles, Washington's "war on terror" is ludicrous. There is never any context — anti-Western Islamic terrorists are simply evil incarnate. For the Western media, terrorism only ever applies to others; by definition the West does not use terror. The invasion of Iraq is not seen as terrorism.

(A small aside here. A number of comrades might be familiar with the really excellent Penguin two-volume world historical atlas. It's actually by two German authors. In the section on World War II, they matter-of-factly describe the Allied air campaign against German cities as "terror bombing" — which, of course, is exactly what it was.)

Opposition to terrorism not absolute

However, I think it's important here to make the point that our opposition to terrorism is not absolute. There is terrorism and there is terrorism. In Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky defends the emergency measures of the so-called "Red terror" used against the Whites in the civil war struggle. I don't want to go into all that here. Comrades can read Trotsky's book, our pamphlet or Victor Serge's book, Year One of the Russian Revolution.

In his polemic against Kautsky, Trotsky points out that capitalism has a history — even a revolutionary history — and at certain moments terrorism played a real role here. He uses the example of the US Civil War — in reality the second phase of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in that country — in which the northern industrial capitalist class and its popular allies confronted the slaveholding southern plantation owners. Each side used repression to intimidate and silence its internal enemies.

Lincoln’s progressive Northern Republican administration took stern measures — "terror" if you like — against its opponents. Supporters of the South were jailed in violation of Habeas Corpus, the property of rebels was seized, free speech for those not in sympathy with the government was suppressed. Yet these repressive measures had strong support from the public which was inflamed with the idea of prevailing in the struggle and willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve victory.

As one would expect, in the reactionary Southern camp a much harsher White terror raged, with lynchings and assassinations often the fate of suspected supporters of the Union.

Terrorism 'from below'

Throughout history, terror from the ruling class has always provoked terror from below, the killing of oppressors of the people, torturers and collaborators. Naturally in such cases, we sympathise with the avengers of the people and not their victims. But as Marxists we are opposed to such "individual terrorism" when it is employed as a strategy opposed to the strategy of mass action.

In his 1942 polemic with Grandizo Munis in Socialism on Trial, James P. Cannon clarifies what we support and what we oppose in this way:

Sabotage, to us, means individual acts of obstruction and destruction, substituted for mass action. That is the way Marxism defines it and, thereby, condemns it. Similarly, individual terrorism. But it is necessary to understand that such actions have one quality when employed as substitutes for mass action and another quality when subordinated to and absorbed by mass action. Marxism is opposed to terrorist assassinations, for example, but not to wars of liberation waged by the oppressed masses, even though wars entail some killing of obnoxious individuals. So, also, with acts of obstruction and destruction as part of and subordinate to wars waged by the masses, not as substitutes for them. "Terrorism" and "sabotage" are then no longer the same things. Everything changes, including the attitude of Marxists, according to what is dominant and what is subordinate in the circumstances.[10]

The struggle in Iraq

The struggle in Iraq with its ceaseless violence and horror has given us all plenty of things to ponder.

Of course, the media presentation of the conflict is completely distorted. Directly or indirectly the violence comes from Washington's attempt to subjugate the country. The US spent more than a decade choking Iraq to death through the criminal sanctions regime. And in their current operation they have probably killed at least 100,000 people and maimed and traumatised many more; the whole country has been wrecked. Falluja, for instance, a city only slightly smaller than Newcastle, has been destroyed and most of its inhabitants driven out into the desert. For obvious reasons, the capitalist media chooses not to show all this — were the public in the US or Australia to be fully aware of the real level of US violence, political support for the whole project would crumble significantly.

But, having said all that, the activities of the resistance forces do raise a number of related issues about which we have to be clear. What is our attitude to the violence employed by the armed resistance? What do we think of the car bombings, suicide bombings, hostage-taking, assassinations and killing of those regarded as collaborators? Are these types of actions legitimate or in what circumstances are they legitimate?

This question is all the more challenging because of the largely conservative and often religious nature of the resistance leadership. All the more reason why we need a clear Marxist framework in which to place these issues.

Suicide bombings and car bombings

The struggle of the Iraqi resistance to the US occupation of their country is marked by the widespread use of car bombs, whether operated by suicide bombers or not.

While some of the bombings may well be the work of CIA or puppet regime forces, generally they appear to be legitimate resistance operations aimed at obvious targets (US forces, regime personnel or members of the local puppet security forces).

However, many of these bombings appear also to result in a very high level of "collateral damage", that is, heavy casualties among ordinary Iraqi civilians. One may regret the car bomb phenomenon but the ultimate responsibility rests with the US occupiers. The car bomb is a weapon of the weak; the strong side drops bombs from the air or uses artillery.

In Palestine, as we know, the struggle has been marked by the phenomenon of the suicide bomber. While some of these operations are aimed at the Israeli military or the paramilitary settlers, others seem to indiscriminately target the civilian population. It is a weapon of desperation.

Of course, the Israeli authorities rant about "terrorism" but from people who use attack helicopters and fighter aircraft to launch missiles into crowded areas, who blow up whole buildings to kill one person on their hit list, this is the most disgusting hypocrisy.

Our basic criticisms of these suicide bombings — at least those against the Israeli civilian population — are that they are politically counterproductive (i.e., they inhibit the development of an internal Israeli opposition), they are hugely wasteful of the lives of militants, and they cut across the development of the mass struggle of the Palestinian people. Only such a political assessment makes sense; a purely moral critique — they're wrong because they kill innocent civilians — doesn’t even begin to get to the bottom of the problem.

But in a different context, our evaluation is necessarily different.

In Spain in 1936, for example, when Franco's forces rose in revolt against the popularly elected republican government, sheer mass heroism by the poorly armed people crushed the military uprisings in the big cities. Fascist machine-gun nests were destroyed by driving taxis at them at full speed — a form of "suicide bombing" perhaps but in this case an absolutely integral part of the genuinely mass struggle.

And in the desperate fighting on the Eastern Front in World War II, I'm sure many comrades have read accounts of Red soldiers loaded with grenades heroically flinging themselves under Nazi tanks. In this case, such self-sacrificing "suicide" operations were simply an aspect of the overall mass armed struggle against the fascist invaders.


The fighting in Iraq has given much prominence to the issue of hostage-taking. Again, this question cannot be appraised independently of the overall struggle. Washington is responsible for the devastation of Iraqi society and ultimately it has created the conditions for the wave of kidnappings of foreigners.

Whatever we might think of the images of generally low-level hostages facing death if their governments do not withdraw from Iraq, realistically such actions are unlikely to disappear as long as the US continues to occupy the country. Brutalised by the imperialist occupation, the masses are not likely to play by Marquis of Queensberry rules. The best way for foreign governments to protect their nationals is to get their forces out of Iraq immediately and stop supporting the US neocolonial project in any way whatsoever.

Again, however, it's worth remembering that we are not opposed to the taking of hostages as such. It all depends on who is doing it, what for, and the overall context.

1. The Paris Commune of 1871 took hostages in an attempt to stop the killing of their fighters captured by the bourgeois Versailles regime. Before the fall of the city, they executed 64 of them, headed by the archbishop of Paris. The bourgeois press went into a frenzy against this action but Marx defended it in his famous pamphlet, The Civil War in France:

When Thiers [the leader of the reactionary forces] … from the very beginning of the conflict, enforced the humane practice of shooting down the Communal prisoners, the Commune, to protect their lives, was obliged to resort to the Prussian practice of securing hostages. The lives of the hostages had been forfeited over and over again by the continued shooting of prisoners on the part of the Versaillese. How could they be spared any longer after the carnage with which MacMahon's praetorians celebrated their entrance into Paris? Was even the last check upon the unscrupulous ferocity of bourgeois governments — the taking of hostages — to be made a mere sham of? The real murderer of Archbishop Darboy is Thiers. The Commune again and again had offered to exchange the archbishop, and ever so many priests in the bargain, against the single Blanqui, then in the hands of Thiers. Thiers obstinately refused. He knew that with Blanqui he would give to the Commune a head; while the archbishop would serve his purpose best in the shape of a corpse.[11]

2. In the Russian Civil War, following a 1919 decree, the Reds systematically took hostages from the families of tsarist military specialists serving with them as a guarantee against betrayal to the Whites. However, as Trotsky points out in Their Morals and Ours, scarcely a single hostage was executed on account of such treachery, despite the fact that it did occur and cost thousands of lives and great suffering.

3. On July 31, 1970, the Tupamaros urban guerrilla group in Uruguay kidnapped US torture specialist Dan Mitrione, who was training the local police in torture techniques. His captors demanded that the government release 150 jailed militants. Backed by the Nixon administration, the Uruguayan government refused and the Tupamaros executed Mitrione; his body was found on August 10.

He was given a hero's funeral back in the United States. But Mitrione was a monster, an imperialist technician of repression. He had a soundproof basement under his house in Montevideo where he tortured at least four beggars to death to demonstrate his techniques to selected cops.

The kidnapping formed the basis for Costa-Gavras' outstanding 1973 film State of Siege. Yves Montand starred as the captured torturer facing popular justice.

4. Finally, in Nicaragua on August 22, 1978 (about a year before the successful 1979 revolution) a 26-person FSLN commando unit seized the National Palace in Managua. The entire House of Deputies along with hundreds of other people were taken hostage. Such a large section of Somoza's clique and key personnel were captured that the dictatorship had no choice but to negotiate with the rebels.

The FSLN's key demands were the freeing of over 100 of their jailed militants and safe conduct out of the country. After a 45-hour siege, the rebels and their key hostages were driven to the airport. All along the 12-kilometre route, thousands of supporters cheered them on and escorted their bus. No one was killed in this operation although many of the prisoners whose release was demanded had already been killed in Somoza's prisons. Overall, the operation was a great success.

In March of that same year the FSLN had kidnapped one of Somoza's most notorious generals and demanded the release of more than 60 Sandinista prisoners. Somoza refused and the general was executed, the only time in the FSLN's history that one of their hostages had been killed.

Comrades can read about all this in George Black's excellent 1981 history of the revolution, Triumph of the People.


The Iraqi resistance has assassinated a number of prominent members of the puppet regime. But again, assassination has to be seen in its context. Furthermore, the West cannot plausibly oppose the practice as such since it has frequently resorted to it.

For instance, in a well-known episode during World War II, in 1942, a British-trained team of Czech exiles was parachuted into Czechoslovakia to kill Reinhard Heydrich, the deputy head of the Gestapo who was responsible for Bohemia and Moravia. Their success in May of that year sparked brutal reprisals by the Nazis — in June the village of Lidice was razed, almost 200 men were executed, some 200 women were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp and 100 children dispersed, many to their deaths.

Was the assassination justified? The British authorities obviously thought so; in fact, they must have known the sort of repression the success of their attempt would lead to. (Heydrich's assassination is the subject of Lewis Gilbert's 1976 movie, Operation Daybreak, starring Timothy Bottoms and Antony Andrews.)

Sections of the US ruling class obviously believe that assassination is an effective way to deal with its political problems, both at home and abroad. The Kennedy assassination and the later killings of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King all most likely involved elements of various state agencies.

And it is an officially documented fact that the US organised numerous attempts on Fidel Castro's life.

In 2004 Cuba broke off diplomatic relations with Panama after the outgoing president pardoned four Cuban terrorists jailed for a 2000 plot to kill Fidel during his visit to that country. Strangely, the presidential pardons were granted shortly after Colin Powell visited Panama. Three of the freed criminals went off to Miami where they were feted by the anti-Cuban mafia.

The other released terrorist, the notorious Luis Posada Carriles, had in 1985 escaped from a Venezuelan jail where he was serving time for organising the 1976 midair bombing of a Cuban airliner, which resulted in the deaths of 73 people.

What about assassinations by those fighting oppression? Can they be justified? Again, the yardstick is that set out by Trotsky and Cannon. All those actions which promote the mass struggle are good, those which retard it are bad.

On December 20, 1973, in Madrid, the Basque terrorist group ETA (V) assassinated Franco's prime minister and main henchman, Admiral Carrero Blanco. (Technically the operation was spectacular. His vehicle was blown right over the top of a nearby church and landed in a street on the other side.) While we can be sure that the masses didn't shed any tears on account of this notorious regime figure getting his just desserts, did the action drive forward the struggle? At the time, we criticised it as a classic case of individual terrorism counterposed to the strategy of mass action.

On May 27, 1990, a unit of the Provisional IRA executed two male Australian tourists sitting with their female partners at an outdoor table in Roermond in the Netherlands in the belief that they were off-duty British soldiers. In fact, the tourists had absolutely zero connection with the struggle in Ireland. The IRA apologised for their mistake. (On October 26 the year before, an IRA attack in Germany had killed a British soldier and his child. The IRA apologised for killing the child.)

The Roermond operation was a truly spectacular and horribly fascinating tragedy. Two completely innocent people were dead and the lives of those who survived them were shattered. The media, especially in Australia, went into a predictable frenzy of anti-IRA propaganda. But at the end of the day, what can one say? That the IRA killers were criminals and moral degenerates? That approach doesn't even begin to get to the heart of the matter. The incident can only be appraised politically, not morally.

British oppression and violence in Northern Ireland have created resistance. The Irish nationalists have every right to take up arms to defend themselves against the oppressors and their Loyalist allies. But the IRA adopted a militarist strategy which prioritised armed actions over politically mobilising the masses. In this context, tragedies like Roermond were inevitable and merely gave the British and Australian media a field day for their pro-imperialist hypocrisy.

Killing of collaborators

The Iraqi insurgency has been marked by sustained attacks against police, national guard forces and officials of the puppet regime. The US and its lackeys choose to call this "terrorism". Yes, it is terrorism but, as we have seen, this term covers a lot of ground and embraces both the justifiable and the unjustifiable.

One can certainly question a strategy which focuses on killing ordinary police or national guards when clearly most are simply trying to survive economically in a ruined country and have shown no real inclination to fight for the US occupiers. However, putting aside the question of whether such attacks are politically expedient, we can point out that attacks on those regarded as collaborators or quislings have often featured in armed uprisings including some which the bourgeoisie has applauded and celebrated. Here is simply one example.

In April 1943, in Nazi-occupied Poland, the Jews remaining in the Warsaw Ghetto, faced with the choice of dying of starvation or deportation to certain death — and inspired by the great victories of the Red Army — began a desperate and heroic uprising. It has justly been commemorated in books such as Leon Uris' best-selling novel Mila 18 and the film of the same name. When the Jewish Fighting Organisation which led the revolt was constituted, its charter included the following:

A terrorist campaign will be initiated against the Jewish police, Jewish communal leaders [i.e., against collaborators] and the Werkschutz [factory police].

To protect Jewish masses active combat will be conducted against shop administrators and foremen, the open and secret Gestapo agents.

The charter called for "an overall campaign plan for sabotage and terrorism".[12] Without eliminating the eyes and ears of the repressive apparatus, how could the uprising have any hope of success?

Death penalty

Finally in this section, let's look at the death penalty. Like all violence and killing — even in a justified cause — it can rightly be considered barbaric. We are opposed to it under capitalism and in a normally functioning workers state there would be no death penalty. Indeed, as society moves towards communism, as classes wither away so will the state and all aspects of state repression. They will end up in history's rubbish bin. This is what socialists are fighting for.

We have before us today the particularly horrible example of the United States, the self-appointed champion of "human rights", where at the end of 2003 some 6.9 million people — 1 in every 32 US adults— were either in prison or in the coils of the "criminal justice" system (i.e., on probation or parole). In mid-2003, the per capita imprisonment rate of the leader of the "free world" was the highest in the world — it was, for example, three times that of Iran and seven times that of Germany!

The death penalty is a key part of the whole system. It serves to terrorise the population. But it is so biased against the poor and coloured, it is so unjust, so much the tool of the police and corrupt judges and prosecutors that there is growing disquiet.

For example, in the state of Illinois, so many people had been proved innocent after being sentenced to death, that in January 2003 the outgoing Republican governor commuted the sentences of all death-row prisoners, even though he personally favoured the death penalty!

But our opposition to the death penalty cannot be absolute or based on abstract moral grounds. Otherwise we would be pacifists, not Marxists. One can argue against capital punishment but the only valid grounds for us can be those of political expediency — i.e., does it advance the cause or not.

Before they took power, the Bolsheviks demanded the abolition of the death penalty. The new Soviet regime at first delivered on this demand and abolished capital punishment. But in the face of the developing counter-revolution it was forced to reinstate it.

In Terrorism and Communism Trotsky defends the use of the death penalty in the civil war context. As he explains to Kautsky, in a civil war each side expects to be victorious. Imprisonment will not deter hardened fighters since they expect to be liberated before too long. Hence the widespread resort to shootings by both sides to intimidate and break the will of their opponents. However, the Whites, representing a small minority of society, necessarily had to carry out a far more widespread and atrocious repression than the Reds. Repression played a part in the Soviet victory but a subordinate one. (You can read about this in Victor Serge's Year One of the Russian Revolution.)

In April 2003 the Cuban government executed three convicted boat hijackers. This hijacking came in the midst of a wave of plane and boat takeovers and attempted and planned takeovers. This action created a storm of controversy among defenders of the Cuban revolution with prominent figures like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn speaking out against it. Many others — such as James Petras — defended the action.

Cuba is engaged in a life and death struggle with US imperialism, even if it's not a shooting war at the moment. They cannot afford to abolish the death penalty, even though for political and other reasons they may choose to use it sparingly (and they do, especially compared to the US).

Furthermore, in the face of a real offensive by Washington using the visa issue, if the Cuban authorities had not drawn a firm line in the sand, there was a real danger that their own supporters among the population would have become demoralised.

III. 'In the fight and for the fight'

In conclusion, I want to take up some of the more personal issues of commitment in the struggle. What should we do here and now, today, in Australia? What should be our fundamental code of conduct?

In Their Morals and Ours Trotsky remarks of Lenin:

The "amoralism" of Lenin, that is, his rejection of supra-class morals, did not hinder him from remaining faithful to one and the same ideal throughout his whole life; from devoting his whole being to the cause of the oppressed … Does it not seem that "amoralism" in the given case is only a pseudonym for higher human morality?[13]

This should be our moral yardstick too. Whether we are workers, students, full-timers, coping with family responsibilities or health problems — whatever our personal circumstances, above all this, above everything else — we are fighters for a cause, we are soldiers of the revolution and socialism. That is the way each of us should see ourselves.

Although at the moment in Australia we aren't risking our lives, being a socialist activist in a rich country is not always easy. We are bombarded with all the propaganda of capitalist society — compete, look after No. 1, climb the greasy pole, get ahead and make a career; happiness is supposed to come from consuming an endless array of commodities or sampling all the attractions of the capitalist leisure industry.

Even if we understand how false all this is at bottom, it can sometimes get to us or we can start to feel a crisis of relevance — does anyone listen, will we ever succeed and so on?

But the capitalist dream factory is selling shoddy goods. They won't bring us real happiness. Fundamentally, the only way to escape an alienated existence in this society is to understand what's wrong and join in the struggle to change it.

Trotsky put it this way in a recorded message to an October 28, 1938 meeting in New York celebrating the founding of the Fourth International and the 10th anniversary of the American Trotskyist movement:

Our party demands each of us, totally and completely. Let the philistines hunt their own individuality in empty space. For a revolutionary to give [oneself] entirely to the party signifies finding [oneself].

Yes, our party takes each one of us wholly. But in return it gives to every one of us the highest happiness: the consciousness that one participates in the building of a better future, that one carries on [one's] shoulders a particle of the fate of [humanity], and that one's life will not have been lived in vain.[14]

These are challenging times, comrades. There is the global situation, with unprecedented dangers facing the human race — the ecological crisis, the appalling poverty and suffering, and imperialist militarism gone mad and now we can add, natural disasters intensified qualitatively by an inhuman social system which puts people's needs a distant second to corporate greed.

And right here, in our own country, the DSP is embarked on a great project which has the potential to radically widen our field of operations and create immensely more rewarding possibilities for the further development of the revolutionary socialist current.

Paradoxically, this project has dramatically increased the pressure on the DSP and we are under considerable strain as a result. However, while this situation is serious and will not be reversed without great effort, I think we should feel some confidence in the ultimate result.

We have great political resources. And our greatest resource is our cadre, the Marxist understanding of our comrades and their commitment, capacity for self-sacrifice and discipline. Each of us should clearly understand the stakes and resolve to do our utmost to contribute to the overcoming of our problems.

To conclude, I'd like to give the last words to James P. Cannon. They are from the final section of his political report to the October 1942 convention of the Socialist Workers Party. It was given in the midst of World War II, with 18 party leaders and militants facing jail terms for their opposition to the imperialist slaughter. A number of SWP members in the party's large maritime fraction had already perished in the wartime ocean convoys. In Europe the war was raging, the Trotskyist movement was underground, and a number of its leaders had fallen victim to the Nazis. Cannon sought to steel and inspire the party for what was ahead.

But with all allowances made for the differences in time and place, I think that his words — with their emphasis on staunchness in the struggle and faith in the future — speak no less strongly to us today than they did then.

Ah, but the faint hearts say, American imperialism is so rich, is so strong; who dares to challenge it? We do. We dare. We see not only its strength; we see also its internal weakness, its hopeless contradictions. We see the historic doom that has already been pronounced upon this imperialist monster. We know that this is their day, but we also know, with no less certainty, that tomorrow is our day. Our enemies are strong but our program, our cadres, our discipline are stronger and will prevail.

We are inspired in our fight by the most completely self-justifying, the most powerful driving incentive that has ever been known — our faith in [humanity] and [its] grandiose communist future. Whatever may befall any of us individually, participation in the fight for the communist future of [humanity] is the only justifiable life in this epoch, the happiest and the most satisfying life. Whether we as individuals take part in the final victory … or whether some of us as individuals perish in the fight that is not of much consequence. That is only the soldier's hazard, it is not the most important thing. The most important thing is that we live in the fight and for the fight. Let all the other things take care of themselves.[15]


  1. Trotsky et al, Their Morals and Ours (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2000).
  2. Ibid., p. 6.
  3. Ibid., p. 74.
  4. Ibid., p. 17.
  5. Cannon, Fighting for Socialism in the 'American Century' (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2000).
  6. Ibid., p. 250.
  7. Ibid., p. 250.
  8. Their Morals and Ours, p. 50.
  9. Ibid., p. 37.
  10. Cannon, Socialism on Trial (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1999), pp. 154-155.
  11. Marx, The Class Struggles in France (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2003), p. 275.
  12. Ber Mark, Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto (Schocken Books, New York, 1975), p. 114.
  13. Their Morals and Ours, p. 34.
  14. Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-39) (Pathfinder Press: New York, second edition, 1974), p. 86.
  15. Cannon, The Socialist Workers Party in World War II (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1975), p. 265.