Read INSTEAD OF A FOOTNOTE of Socialism: Positive and Negative , free online book, by Robert Rives La Monte, on

A photograph of a Fifth Avenue mansion, taken from the partition wall in the back-yard, might be a perfectly accurate picture and yet give a very inadequate idea of the house as a whole. This article on “Marxism and Ethics” is, in a sense, just such a picture. In writing it, space limitations compelled me to confine myself wholly to impressing upon the reader the relative and transitory character of moral codes. But in the popular concept of morality there are elements that are relatively permanent. Darwin in his “Descent of Man” showed that the gregarious and social traits that make associated life possible antedate, not only the division of society into classes, but even antedate humanity itself, since they plainly appear in the so-called lower animals.

So that my contention that morality only came into being with the division of society into classes and will pass away when class divisions are abolished, becomes a question of definition. If we include in our definition of morality the almost universal and relatively permanent gregarious traits of men and beasts, then morality has existed longer than humanity itself, and will continue to exist under Socialism. But it cannot be denied that moral codes were not formulated until after class-divisions had arisen. Every moral code of which we have any knowledge has been moulded by the cultural discipline of a society based on class-divisions. In every one of them there is implied the relation of status, of a superior, natural or supernatural, with the right or power to formulate “commandments,” and of an inferior class whose lot it is to obey. We find this implication of status in even the noblest expressions of current ethical aspirations. Wordsworth’s immortal Ode to Duty begins, “Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!”

Since then morality as a word through the force of immemorial habit unavoidably suggests to the mind the relation of status, it appears to me that its use to describe truly social conduct in a society of equals can lead to nothing but confusion. What we really need is the right word to apply to the highest conduct in a classless society; and, I am inclined to think that a generation to whom the idea of status will have become wholly alien will find the word “social” entirely adequate for this purpose, though I frankly confess it is not adequate for us

“In the days of the years we dwell in, that wear our lives away.”

My statement that the Revolutionary worker abstains from crimes against property from expediency rather than from principle must not be construed into an allegation that fear of personal punishment is the only ground for abstaining from such crimes. If it were not for the stupidity and malice of our opponents I would feel that I was insulting my readers by making this explanation; but for their benefit be it said that in a society based economically upon the institution of private property social life is impossible without respect (respect here refers to acts, not to mental attitude) for private property. Crimes against property are distinctly unsocial. But respect for the rights of property is rapidly disintegrating both among trust magnates and proletarians. The Natural Rights Philosophy still has much vitality in the middle classes, but as a broad statement it will hold good that the millionaire or the proletarian who shows respect for private property (the private property of others, be it understood) does so chiefly on grounds of expediency.

The socialist materialist is well content to leave this whole question of ethics to adjust itself, since he knows that equality of condition, the economic basis of Socialism, will necessarily evolve a mode of living, and standards of conduct in perfect harmony with their economic environment.