Digest of terms
Marxists typically distinguish between a society's economic base and its ideological superstructure, with morality as part of the latter. Changes in the economic base are reflected in the superstructure, giving rise to moralities representing the material interests of society's different classes. In capitalist societies the main moral ideals and principles serve the interests of the ruling class. However, they are given the appearance of being of general or even universal validity, thus deceiving the working class through the power of a mischievous bourgeois ideology - to which religion makes a substantial contribution and is thus an important part of the ideological deception. In reality there are no general standards, either philosophical or religious, which transcend class interests. Bourgeois morality, representing a minority, should be replaced by proletarian morality, representing the majority, and this is ultimately only achievable through revolutionary class struggle and a socialist revolution - a revolution spearheaded, in Leninist interpretations of Marxism, by a tightly organized minority revolutionary vanguard party leading (in theory) to the dictatorship of the (majority) proletariat and 'democratic centralism'. In this crucial struggle the emancipatory ends justify the revolutionary means.
Marxist ethics are very firmly a form of humanist ethics, with the ultimate goal of a classless society in which a 'new man', liberated from bourgeois ideology and the opium of religion, is shaped by, and contributes to the shaping of, a harmonious and non-patriarchal society and the withering away of the state, as forms of socialism develop into communism. Critics would see this as a form of
unrealistic utopianism. Many variations in Marxist ethics theorizing have occurred in attempts to solve these and other difficulties.
A paradox emerges, in that Marx's passionate protests against the inhumanity and injustice of capitalist exploitation ('wage slavery') appear to presuppose standards of humanity, justice, equality and liberty which transcend any particular class base. Engels indeed called for moral 'progress', and again this implies general standards by which progress might be measured. Many variations in Marxist ethical theorizing have occurred in attempts to solve these and other difficulties.
In Latin America a strongly humanist Marxism was blended with theological ethics by some Christian thinkers in the movement known as Liberation Theology. This movement was subsequently repressed by the Vatican - a move which, from a Marxist perspective, confirms their diagnosis of the predominantly oppressive role of religion in the unceasing class struggle.