Soviet Ethics and Morality
reviewed by David Lawson - 1971
Professor De George of the philosophy department at the University of Kansas had contributed at least two full-length works on Soviet thought as well as numerous journal articles by the time he became a senior research fellow at Columbia University in 1965-66. It was in the latter capacity that he produced the present volume, which is a study of Columbia's Russian Institute.
Aside from the preface, an introduction, and appended material, Soviet Ethics and Morality contains six chapters. The first three are concerned with the basis, structure, and content of Soviet ethical theory, and the latter three with official Soviet morality. This arrangement is in keeping with Soviet ethical theory itself, which regards ethics as the theory of morals, in which respect the direction of the volume is from theory to practice.
Western readers expecting to find much constricting monistic paternalism and lack of imagination in Soviet ethical theory are likely to have such preconceptions reinforced by De George's assessment. Even so, the author emphatically declares that it is not his intention to disprove or refute the Russian philosophical position, but "to point up areas where more critical analysis, clarification and development are required." Such an objective stands in high contrast with official Soviet philosophic method, which characteristically aims at a refutation of non-Marxist-Leninist teachings. Accordingly, while Western philosophic critiques of Soviet ethics and morality will tend to be corrective, Soviet critiques will tend to reject Western positions.
From the standpoint of pluralistic Western ethics with its roots in the classical world, Soviet moral philosophers would have to be seen not so much as thinkers with commitments to personal vision and rationality, but rather as philosopher-technicians or ideologues employed to defend the established position of the Communist Party. This is true, even though Russian philosophers do, as De George notes, have some understanding of the ways in which moral philosophers have traditionally functioned as apologists for an existing power structure. Soviet moral philsophy continues to justify the ruling morality of another power structure—the CPSU. We learn that prior to 1947, Soviet philosophers were unproductive, and that a plea was then made in Stalin's name by Pol-itburo member A. A. Zhdanov for greater activity, especially in bringing Marxist thought to bear on Russian social problems. In 1960, V. P. Tugarinov called for greater analysis of ethical terms by focusing on variant meanings of "good," and at the same time took the occasion to reject many senses of "good" inimical to Marxist thought. It would obviously be a mistake to regard such events as instances of penetrating Soviet self-criticism. On the contrary, they appear to be official, unoriginal attempts to keep Soviet philosophy in line.
Reason and the a priori, which have an historically exalted status in philosophy, are treated reductively by the genetic method and made to conform by Soviet philosophers to specific social relations. Although such an approach to rationality is reminiscent of Western pragmatism, pragmatism in itself is regarded as irrational for denying objective truth and goodness. Logical positivism, analysis, and semantics are castigated for their preoccupation with ethical terms and their unscientific approach inconsistent with Marxist-Leninist philosophy; revisionism is refuted as humanistic individualism; neo-Thomism and other theologically-based ethical positions are dismissed as anti-scientific, idealistic, or irrational; and existentialism, another irrationality, is rejected for its subjectivisms, bourgeois decadence, and emphasis on the individual in isolation. Professor De George indicates that in all cases Soviet moral philosophers appear to be reacting only to caricatures of the Western positions.
Focusing inward—and away from what the Soviets regard as -philosophies of bourgeois capitalistic decadence—it is surprising to find that Russia has only recently begun to sponsor a literature of moral philosophy. One difficulty facing Soviet moral philosophers has been the paucity of material devoted to this area in the works of Marx and Lenin; another has been that the writings of the early Marx differ, in some important respects, from those written later. If it is true that Soviet ethics and morality are weighted more toward social consciousness than personalistic or individualistic dimensions, then one can conclude that a fertile basis for group consciousness existed in Russia prior to the revolutions. Thus, one significant aspect of Soviet ethics and morality is indigenous.
Barring effects of globalism and outside philosophical influences, Russia's future must lie in its own traditions. As De George notes, what is moral is what tends to further the establishment of the communist state; yet the cause of Soviet ethics and morality is in jeopardy when communism is itself so ill-defined, remaining at best a rather vague conception. It is instructive, for example, to ponder that the ideal of communist brotherhood extends only to those who accept its goals. Then too, one has only to consider the varieties of communism in other socialist countries to realize that what is moral may be more arbitrary than the CPSU can willingly admit. Also the ideals of communism are endangered if it can be objectively ascertained that exploitation and lack of equality can occur under communism just as readily as in Western capitalistic states.
No one could accuse the Soviet Union of insufficient concern with its own future. Indeed, the most trenchant criticism of Russia is aimed precisely at her collectivist vision of a future communist society which places such limitations on individual freedom. What is deeply ironic is the prospect of a projected communist future canceling out the importance of the present where such a future is ill-conceived, hence incapable of being realized. For Russia, it seems imperative that she seek answers springing from her own legacy and avoid succumbing to mere ideology. Some inspiring clues to a livable future are surely to be found in the past, and hopefully it would not be regarded as insulting to remind Russia, with its deliberate, recent tradition of five-year plans, that "where there is no vision, the people perish."
De George's distinctions between "manipulative," "conformity," and "autonomous" morality are useful. The history of communism really begins with Karl Marx's diatribe against the manipulative morality of the dominating class, which is precisely that morality the CPSU imposes on the Russian people, with certain fluctuations to suit successive eras. "Conformity morality" might be illustrated by the actual behavior of the Russians, who, if social control is going well, are eager to emulate the manipulative morality of the Communist Party. What is conspicuously lacking in the Soviet scheme in Western eyes is "autonomous morality," whereby persons dedicate themselves freely to whatever it is they conscientiously value.
If Soviet moral philosophers appear so uniformly in the role of apologist-supporters for the Communist establishment, iconoclastic signs have certainly been showing in another area of Soviet cultural life which is not treated by De George—namely, literature. ' Surely, something of a refreshing tradition of resistance to those forces which blot out cultural freedom has been established by a small and courageous group of Soviet poets and novelists. (What will be difficult for Westerners to maintain, as they assess this phenomenon, is the discipline of refraining from superimposing our endemic Western notions of cultural freedom on Russia.) That Soviet iconoclastic literature receives no coverage from Professor De George may be significant if only because it tends to widen the gap between "creative" literature and the literature of moral philosophy. Why there should be such a gap in Russia becomes evident when the criterion of iconoclasm is applied. Yet poets and fiction writers with unique vision continue to reflect upon ethics and morality through the medium of their art.
It will be argued (and not just in Russia) that establishing ethical norms, social control, and moral education cannot be confused with individual artistic production—even where the values projected by the artist happen to coincide with official policies. This can be acknowledged, and at the same time it can be asserted that where, as in Russia, public and external factors gain in ascendancy, the value of personal interiority must be championed—if necessary by the CPSU—in order to counterbalance externalization, and guarantee social as well as individual survival. That Soviet officialdom would probably instantly reject such a recommendation underscores the difficulty of seeing Russia through Western eyes. Given De George's appraisal, what seems clear, at least for the present, is that personal expression has a better chance of reaching fruition in the Western world.