Tactics and ethics (1919)

Lynn Chadwick, The Little Fish, 1951.


A philosophy of history as a decisive parameter of socialist tactics

In political action, the position and meaning of tactics differs greatly, in all parties and classes, according to the particular historical-philosophical structure and role of these parties and classes: if we define tactics as a means for the realization of goals chosen by the active groups, as a link between the ultimate end (endzweck)[I] and reality, fundamental differences are produced, depending on whether the end is categorized as a moment that is within the given social reality or beyond it (which transcends it)[ii].

The immanence or transcendence of the ultimate end mainly contains the following difference: in the first case (immanence)[iii], the existing legal order is given as a principle that determines, necessarily and normatively, the tactical scope of action; on the other hand, in the case of a “social-transcendent” goal (gesellschaftlich-transzendenten), this order presents itself as pure society, as real power, and the fact of having it, as such, can have, at most, a utilitarian meaning. We stress that this is a utilitarian feeling at best (Besten Fall)[iv], since an objective such as, for example, that of the French “legitimist” restoration – namely: the recognition, in any way, of the legal order of the revolution – was already equivalent to a compromise.

However, this example also shows that the various transcendent goals – within the framework of a totally abstract sociology devoid of any values ​​– must be placed on the same level. If, by chance, the social order established as an ultimate goal already existed in the past, if it was only a matter of restoring a stage of development that had already been overcome. Therefore, the ignorance of the current legal order is only an apparent overcoming of the limits of the given legal orders, so a real legal order is confronted with another real legal order.

The continuity of development is not rigorously contested; the most extreme end consists, then, only in annulling an intermediate stage (stopover). From another perspective, every essentially revolutionary “objective” denies moral raison d'être and actuality (that is, it denies legitimacy).[v] historical-philosophical both of current and past legal orders; for the said “objective”, therefore, the question whether these legal orders should be taken into account and, if so, to what extent it should be taken into account, becomes exclusively tactical.

But, bearing in mind that tactics are thus freed from the normative limitations of the legal order, it is necessary to find some new parameter capable of regulating the taking of a tactical position. Since the concept of convenience (Expediency) is ambiguous, it is necessary to differentiate, in this sense, whether such a concept comprises a current, concrete objective, or an ultimate goal even further removed from the terrain of reality.

For those classes and parties, whose ultimate end has already been achieved in reality, tactics are governed, necessarily, according to the viability of current and concrete objectives; for them, that abyss that separates the present goal from the ultimate end, those conflicts that arise from this duality, simply do not exist. Here the tactic manifests itself in the form of Realpolitik legal, and it is no coincidence that in such (exceptional) cases[vi] in which a conflict of this type arises, such as, for example, in the context of war, these classes and parties follow the most trivial and catastrophic Realpolitik; they cannot proceed otherwise, since their current ultimate end only admits a similar Realpolitik.

This contrast is very appropriate for illustrating the tactics of revolutionary classes and parties; for them, the tactic is not regulated according to momentary advantages, practicable in the present, including, they must reject some advantages of this nature, since these could endanger what is truly important, the ultimate end (the final purpose)[vii]. However, since the ultimate end is not categorized as a utopia, but rather as a reality that must be achieved, the postulation of the ultimate end cannot mean any abstraction from reality, any attempt to impose certain ideas on it, but rather , the knowledge and practical transformation of those forces that act within the social reality; of those forces, then, which lead to the realization of the ultimate end.

Without this knowledge, the tactics of any revolutionary class or party waver aimlessly between a Realpolitik devoid of ideas and an ideology without real content. This knowledge was absent in the revolutionary struggle of the bourgeois class. There also existed there, of course, an ideology oriented towards an ultimate goal, however, this ideology could not be organically inserted in the regulation of concrete action; instead, it developed largely in the sense of today[viii], created institutions that soon became ends in themselves (Selbstzweck), and therefore clouded (vernebelteen) the ultimate end itself and lowered themselves to the level of a pure and ineffective ideology (Ermiedrigten).

The unique sociological significance of socialism resides precisely in having found a solution to this problem, for the ultimate goal of socialism is utopian to the extent that, at the same time, it goes beyond the economic, legal and social structures of present-day society, and can only be achieved through the destruction of that society; however, it is not utopian insofar as the path to this ultimate end implies a realization (absorption) of ideas that approach and hover, hesitantly, beyond the limits of society or above it.

The Marxist theory of class struggle, which in this respect follows entirely (completely) Hegel's conceptual work converts the transcendent objective into an immanent one; the class struggle of the proletariat is both the aim and at the same time its realization. This process is not a means whose meaning and value can be measured following the parameter of an end that exceeds it, in fact, it represents a new form of elucidation[ix] (Clarification) of utopian society, step by step, leap by leap, according to the logic of history. This means an immersion in current social reality. This “means” is not alien to the “end” (as was the case in the realization of bourgeois ideology), but an approximation of the “end” to self-realization[X] (self-realization). This means that between the tactical means and the ultimate end there are conceptually indeterminable transitions; it is never possible to know, in advance, which tactical step will already make the ultimate end in itself a reality.

This brings us to the decisive parameter of socialist tactics: the philosophy of history (Geschichtsphilosophie). The fact of the class struggle is nothing more than a sociological description and an elevation of events to the status of legality.[xi] that occurs in social reality; however, the intention of the class struggle of the proletariat goes beyond this fact. Incidentally, this intention is, in essence, inseparable from this fact, although it has in mind the emergence of a social order different from any other that has existed up to the present, and in which the existence of oppressors and oppressed is no longer recognized; In order to end the era of economic dependence, which humiliates human dignity, it is necessary – as Marx said – to break the blind power of economic forces, replacing it with a higher power, adequate and corresponding to the dignity of the human being.[xii].

In this way, the consideration and recognition of the current economic and social conjunctures, of the real balance of power[xiii], are nothing more than a prerequisite, not the criterion of correct behavior[xiv], of correct tactics, in accordance with the principles of socialism. The true parameter can only be the way in which the action serves, in a given case, to achieve this end, from the perspective of the socialist movement; and, in fact – since qualitatively different means are not suitable for this end, the means themselves already signify the approach to the ultimate end – all the means by which this process, on the plane of life, must be good. philosophy of history, is awakened to consciousness and reality; must be badbad) all means that hinder (vernebeln) this awareness as, for example, those who obscure the awareness of the legal order and the continuity of “historical” development, or even of the momentary interests of the proletariat. If there is a historical movement for which the Realpolitik is ominous and sinister, that movement is socialism.

This means, concretely, that any solidarity with the prevailing social order hides the possibility of a similar danger. Although we emphasize in vain, with authentic inner conviction, that any solidarity is just a community of interests, momentary, current, which is nothing more than a provisional alliance to obtain a concrete end. It is, however, inevitable the danger that the feeling of solidarity will be installed in that conscience whose need it hides (verfinstert) the universal conscience, the awakening to the self-awareness of humanity.

The class struggle of the proletariat is not a mere class struggle (if it were limited to that, it would only be regulated by the Realpolitik), but in truth it is a means to the liberation of mankind, a means to the true beginning of human history. Every commitment (solidarity)[xv] Hidden (verdunkelt) precisely this aspect of the struggle and, for this reason – despite all its eventual, momentary, but above all extremely problematic advantages – results in fatality in relation to the authentic ultimate end. Therefore, as long as the prevailing social order exists, the dominant classes are in a position to compensate, openly or covertly, for the economic or political advantage obtained in this way; and, after this “compensation”, the fight will only continue in unfavorable circumstances, since, obviously, the commitment[xvi] It weakens the fighting spirit.

Hence, the significance of tactical deviations has a more profound effect on socialism than on other historical movements; the sense of universal history is here the tactical parameter; and, taking into account considerations of useful ultimate ends, one who deviates from the path of right conduct prescribed by philosophy of history – a path that is narrow and steep, but which is the only one that leads to the goal –, assumes responsibility for all his actions before history.

It would seem that this would also provide an answer to the ethical problem; as if following the right tactic were ethical in itself. However, we have reached the point where the dangerous facets of the Hegelian legacy present in Marxism become visible. Hegel's system has no ethics at all; in it, ethics is replaced by that system of material, spiritual goods[xvii] (geistigen) and social aspects in which his social philosophy culminates. This form of ethics was assumed, in essence, by Marxism (as we see, for example, in Kautsky's book[xviii]), but this just established other “values” (Values) instead of the Hegelians, without asking the question whether the pursuit of socially correct “values”, of socially correct ends – regardless of the internal driving forces of action – is already intrinsically ethical, although it is obvious that an ethical question can only have its starting point for these socially correct ends.

Whoever denies the unfolding that is produced here of ethical questions, also denies their ethical possibility and enters into contradiction with the intellective facts (seelischen) more primitive and more general: the subjective certainty of consciousness (conscience) and the sense of responsibility (Verantwortungsbewußtsein). All of these do not aim to analyze, first of all, what the human being did or wanted to do (this is regulated by the norms of social action and political action), but they ask whether what the human being did or wanted to do was objectively correct or incorrect. , and why he did or wanted to do. But this question of why can only arise in individual cases; only makes sense in relation to the individual, in sharp contrast to the tactical issue of objective correctness (objektiven Richtigkeit), which can only find a univocal solution in the collective action of human groups. Therefore, the question before us is: how does the subjective certainty of consciousness behave (conscience) and the sense of responsibility (Verantwortungsbewußtsein) of the individual facing the problem of tactically correct collective action?

First of all, a mutual dependency must be established here, precisely because the two types of action brought together and placed in relation are, in essence, independent of each other. On the one hand, the question of whether a given tactical decision is correct or incorrect is independent of the question of whether the decision of those who act for that purpose was determined by moral motives; on the other hand, an act derived from the purest ethical source may be totally tactically wrong. This mutual independence, however, is only apparent. For if individual action determined – as we shall see below – for purely ethical reasons enters the realm of politics, its objective correctness or incorrectness (historical-philosophical) cannot even be ethically indifferent.

And by virtue of the historical-philosophical orientation of socialist tactics, a collective action must take place in that individual will – after its association with other wills – and the regulative historical-philosophical consciousness must express itself, especially since without it the necessary rejection of the present advantage in view of the ultimate end. The problem can now be formulated in the following terms: what ethical considerations produce in the individual the decision so that the necessary historical-philosophical conscience becomes in him the correct political action, that is, an element of a collective will, awakens and can also determine this action?

We emphasize again: ethics is oriented towards the subject and, as a necessary consequence of this relationship, the postulate according to which the individual must act as if the change in the world's destiny depended on the individual's conscience and sense of responsibility is presented again. their action or inaction, and the pursuit of realizing that destiny should either encourage or discourage the current tactics adopted. (For in ethics there is neither neutrality nor impartiality[xx]; even those who do not want to act must also be able to respond to their conscience for their inaction). Anyone who decides for communism today is therefore committed to assuming the same responsibility individually for every human life that dies fighting for him, as if he had killed it himself.

But all those who adhere to the other side – the defense of capitalism – must bear the same individual responsibility for the destruction that will be produced in the new imperialist wars that will certainly be generated in retaliation (as opposed to communist struggles)[xx], as well as by the future oppression of nations and classes. From an ethical point of view, no one can evade responsibility by claiming to be merely an individual on whom the fate of the world does not depend. Not only can we not know this objectively with certainty – for it is always possible that such a fate depends precisely on that individual – but also the innermost essence of ethics, conscience and the sense of responsibility, makes such thinking impossible; anyone who does not make a decision based on these considerations – even if in other respects he shows himself to be a very elevated being – finds himself, from an ethical point of view, at the level of a primitive instinct, of an unconscious instinctual life.

However, this purely ethical-formal definition of individual action is not sufficient to explain[xxx] the relationship between tactics and ethics. By following or rejecting any ethics whatsoever, the individual who makes an ethical decision within himself passes to a special level of action – namely, that of politics – and this particularity of his action entails, from the point of view of pure ethics, the consequence of having to know how and under what circumstances he acts.

However, the concept of “knowledge”, which is introduced with this, requires a more detailed explanation. On the one hand, “knowledge” by no means implies a perfect and complete understanding of the current political situation and all possible consequences; on the other hand, such “knowledge” cannot be considered as the result of purely subjective reflections, according to which the individual involved acts according to the “best of his knowledge and conscience”. In the first case, all human action would be impossible beforehand; in the other case, the way would be open to the greatest lightness and frivolity, and any moral parameters would become illusory.

However, since the individual's seriousness and sense of responsibility configure a moral parameter for each action, according to which the individual in question could know the consequence of his actions, the question arises whether he, insofar as he knows this consequence, could answer for her before her conscience. This objective possibility varies, of course, according to the individual and from case to case, but, in essence, it can always be determined for each individual and in each case.

Even now, for every socialist, the content of the objective possibility of realizing the ideal of socialism and the making possible of the criteria of possibility are determined by the historical-philosophical actuality of this ideal. Therefore, for every socialist, morally correct action is dependent on correct knowledge of the given historical-philosophical situation; and the way to this knowledge can only be achieved when each individual strives to make this self-awareness conscious to himself.

The first and inevitable prerequisite for this is the development of class consciousness. For right action to become a true and correct regulator, class consciousness must rise above its merely given existence and adjust itself to its universal-historical mission (welthistorische), since the class interest, the realization of which constitutes the content of action carried out with class consciousness, coincides neither with the totality of the personal interests of individuals belonging to the class, nor with the current and momentary interests of the class as a collective unit .

The class interests that make socialism a reality and the class consciousness that gives expression to these interests signify a universal-historical mission; and, in this way, the objective possibility mentioned above raises the question of knowing whether the historical moment has already arrived that must lead – by means of a leap – from the stage of continuous approximation to that of authentic realization (echten Verwirklichung).

Each individual must, however, be aware that here, according to the essence of the thing, there can be only one possibility. It is impossible to conceive of a human science which, with the same precision and certainty with which astronomy establishes the appearance of a comet, could say to society: now is the moment when the principles of socialism must be realized. Nor can there be a science capable of asserting that the moment has not yet arrived today, but that it will arrive tomorrow, or just two years from now. Science, knowledge, can only show possibilities; and a moral action, laden with responsibility, a true human action, is found only in the field of the possible. However, for the individual who perceives and understands this possibility, there is, if he is a socialist, no option or hesitation.

This, however, cannot in any way mean that the action thus constituted must already necessarily be, from a moral point of view, impeccable or irreproachable. No ethics can aim to find or invent recipes for correct action, to soften and deny the insurmountable, tragic conflicts of human destiny. On the contrary: ethical self-knowledge shows precisely that there are situations – tragic situations – in which it is impossible to act without taking the blame; but, at the same time, it also teaches us that, even if we had to choose between two ways of incurring guilt, there would be a parameter for correct action and incorrect action. This parameter is called sacrifice.

And just as the individual who chooses between two kinds of guilt ultimately makes the right choice when he sacrifices his lower self on the altar of higher ideas, so too there is a certain force in asserting that sacrifice in terms of collective action; here, however, the idea is embodied as an imperative of the world-historical situation, as a historical-philosophical mission. Ropschin (Boris Savinkov)[xxiii], the leader of the terrorist group during the Russian Revolution of 1904-1906, formulated in one of his novels[xxiii], the problem of individual terror, in the following terms: murder is not allowed; it is an absolute and unforgivable fault; certainly not "can", but nevertheless "must" be done.

In another passage of the same book, he finds, not the justification – because it is impossible –, but the ultimate moral root of the terrorist’s action, in which he not only sacrifices his life for his brothers and sisters, but also his purity , your morals and your soul. In other words: only the crime committed by the man who knows firmly and beyond a shadow of a doubt that murder cannot be committed or permitted under any circumstances, can still be – tragically – moral in nature.

To express this thought of the deepest human tragedy, in the inimitably beautiful words of Judith from Friedrich Hebbel: “And if God has placed sin between me and the mission assigned to me, who am I to escape it?”[xxv].

*György Lukács (1885-1971) was a Hungarian Marxist philosopher and theorist. Author, among other books, of History and class consciousness (WMF Martins Fontes).

Translation and notes: Caique de Oliveira Sobreira Cruz & Manasseh de Jesus Santos Junior.



[I] Literally: the "ultimate purpose" or the "ultimate goal". Here we bring it as “ultimate end”, as it was done in the Spanish version by Miguel Vedda (2014), as we find it more compatible with the understanding in Brazilian Portuguese. (Translators' Note).

[ii] (Translators addendum).

[iii] (AT).

[iv] Literally: at best. (NT).

[v] (AT).

[vi] (AT).

[vii] (AT).

[viii] Actuality in the sense of what was already established in social concreteness, that is, bourgeois “ideology” developed what was given more than effecting a general supplantation of this reality. (NT).

[ix] In this case, we opted not for the literal translation “clarification” (Clarification), we used “elucidation” to avoid the reproduction of terms with possible racialist semantic charges, such as “clarification”. In some moments, obviously, this type of term will have to be reproduced, when there is no possibility of using synonyms that can express the same idea contained in the original text (NT).

[X] A kind of reduction of the distance between the final objective and its self-realization. (NT).

[xi] Legality, at this point, not in the legal sense, but in the law/concrete social tendency. (NT).

[xii] Formulation that Lukács took from The capital, volume III, by Karl Marx. There is a correspondent in Brazil, in the following edition: (MARX, Karl. The capital:criticism of political economy: book III: the global process of capitalist production /edited by Friedrich Engels; Rubens Enderle translation. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017, p.1079). (NT).

[xiii] In the sense that we understand contemporaneously as “correlation of forces”. (NT).

[xiv] Proceed as synonymous with action. (NT).

[xv] (AT).

[xvi] Lukács refers here to “commitment” or “solidarity” with the prevailing social order, even in tactical terms. (NT).

[xvii] The term “spiritual” is used by Lukács in the sense of mental and intellectual, of thought. It is not metaphysical in character and, therefore, on some occasions, we will translate the literal “spiritual” as “intellectual” in Portuguese. (NT).

[xviii] Lukács is referring, in this passage, to the book by the Czech-Austrian philosopher, Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), entitled Ethik und materialistische Geschichtsauffassung (Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History), 1st edition, Stuttgart, 1906. (NT).

[xx] In the terms of Lukács: within the horizon of ethics there is no possibility of using the “Parteilosigkeit” (apartisanship). (NT).

[xx] (AT).

[xxx] Lukács used another term: “Clarification”, which in Portuguese would refer us to the aforementioned possibility of a racialist grammar. (NT).

[xxiii] Boris Viktorovich Savinkov (1879-1925) was a Russian theorist and literati, as well as a revolutionary. He militated for the “Revolutionary Socialist Party”, being one of its main leaders. (NT).

[xxiii] According to Vedda (2014, p.38), the novel by Boris Savinkov, mentioned by Lukács, would have been the “As if no hubiera occurred” (title of the Spanish version. Unfortunately, we could not find the text published in Portuguese). Savinkov's book was published in 1913, in German, by the “Frankfurt a. M.: Literarische Anstalt Rütten & Loening", written and produced by Boris Savinkov under the pseudonym "W. Ropschin”, probably between 1911-1913, with the following title: Als wär es nie gewesen: Roman aus der russischen Revolution (In English, it would be roughly: As If It Never Happened: A Novel About The Russian Revolution. Alternatively, it would be: As If Nothing Happened: A Novel About The Russian Revolution). (NT).

[xxv] According to Miguel Vedda (2014, p.38), the correct sentence said by “Judith”, in the work of Christian Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863, would have been a little different from the quotation made by Lukács. Therefore, in the Spanish translation, Vedda (2014, p.38) presents the sentence as follows: “If You [God] put a sin between me and the act I must do, I am here to argue with you about it and to escape from you!” (Judith, 111). (NT).

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