Ethical Socialism

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Ethical Socialism


a system of ideas that evolved within the framework of the reformist concept of “democratic socialism” and according to which the socialist ideal is grounded in moral principles. The theoretical roots of ethical socialism can be found in Kant’s doctrine of practical reason and his juxtaposition of natural necessity to the autonomy of the human will.

The leading proponents of ethical socialism are the Germans H. Cohen, P. Natorp, E. Bernstein, and L. Nelson. Starting with the demand that Marxism be “supplemented” by ethical principles in the neo-Kantian spirit, the followers of ethical socialism proceeded to a teleological conception of socialism and replaced social analysis of capitalism with moral condemnation of its negative “aspects.” Distorting the teachings of Marx, the ethical socialists reject his ideas on the natural-historical character of the social process and the transition to socialism, which he viewed as the normal and logical result of the development and resolution of the antagonistic contradictions of capitalist society.

The adherents of ethical socialism claim that Marxism leads to fatalism, that it diminishes human initiative, and that it eliminates the question of the individual’s personal responsibility for his own fate and the fate of society. Ethical socialism rejects the Marxist doctrine of historical necessity and raises a barrier between what is and what will be, or between what exists and what should exist. Social determinism is replaced by diffuse “ethical motives,” and the concept of class struggle by the idea of “social pedagogy”—the latter being called on to harmonize social life on the basis of the increasingly greater “exposure” of socialist ideals; such ideals are assumed to exist a priori in each man’s mind, regardless of his social class.

The rightful path to socialism, according to the ethical socialists, is not social revolution but the moral evolution of all mankind; socialism, in their view, is primarily and above all a system of ethical values—a moral ideal as attractive as it is unattainable.

The ethical interpretation of socialism in its classical form, as derived from Kant, gained its widest currency in the Social Democratic Party of Germany and in the Socialist Party of Austria. To a greater or lesser extent, the ideology of contemporary social democracy as a whole is characterized by the underlying “ethical” principles of socialism. At the same time, the specifically Kantian bases of ethical socialism as a rule recede into the background; they are overshadowed by later philosophical constructs of an anthropological nature, as well as by intensive speculation on the early works of Marx.

In rejecting the idealistic programs of the ethical socialists, Marxism-Leninism does not in the least deny the political significance of the ethical motives of the anticapitalist movement; nor does it question the possibility and the necessity of a value-bound approach to socialism and socialist ideals to inspire those who are engaged in the struggle for socialism. The socialist ideal, however, cannot be understood outside the actual course of history. As Lenin said, ideals cease being chimerical only “if they express the interests of an actually existing class, whose living conditions compel it to act in a particular sense” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 22, p. 101).


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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