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Socialism and Psychology: An Open Letter to a Critic

Dear X,
 
You ask me what I am doing for the community, and whether I have not underestimated the important differences of type or character in human beings which you consider such a formidable obstacle to the establishment of Socialism. I will try and answer your questions.
 
In the first place, let me direct your attention to the fact that the “community,” for which you expect me to do something, is sharply divided into two distinct classes, one of which owns the means of living of the other. Do not take my word for this! Professor Clay (I know you are impressed by Professors), a most respectable person, told us, on February 19th, 1925, in the sober columns of the Manchester Guardian, that less than 6 per cent. of the population held four-fifths of the national capital and received nearly half the national income. Just think that over carefully and you will cease to wonder that the majority of people are poor, no matter how hard they toil.
 
No psychologist has ever yet discovered how to live upon fresh air! He or she always wants food in his or her tummy, clothes to prevent arrest, if nothing else, and a "home” ! And to-day, the means whereby food, clothing and shelter are produced are owned in the main by considerably less than a tenth of the population.
 
The vast mass of the community feed and breed only by permission of the tiny section which owns the resources (land, factories, machinery, etc.), without which feeding and breeding are impossible to-day; and the conditions upon which this permission is granted are that the propertyless ones shall toil for the profit of those who own and control the means of existence.
 
The members of the class to which you and I belong surrender the product of their toil to their kind employers, who graciously return to them a sum of money capable of buying back goods to the value of only a fraction of their product. The masterclass (mostly composed of inactive shareholders) are enabled to live in luxury and also amass fresh capital to make still more profit.
 
This has not always been so. In the Middle Ages the class which attempted to live by trade and money-lending was despised and persecuted by the feudal lords and their vassal land-holders, and condemned by the Church. One day, when you have nothing better to do, you might ask your psychological tutor to explain the curious volte-face on the part of the reformed Church towards the taking of interest. As he believes that the human mind is an independent entity, which develops regardless of material conditions and social environment, I can readily imagine some entertaining mental contortions on his part. To maintain any degree of consistency he will have to maintain that—the Church received a sudden revelation from those "forces” which are hidden so mysteriously somewhere "behind the universe” ! But the above is only one of the many changes in social life and in men's corresponding ideas and customs.
 
Go far back in history and you will come to a time when neither money nor territory nor chattels but kinship formed the root condition of social organisation, and it is from this misty past that the creatures of religious fancy take their rise.
 
In those days a few crude tools and weapons were men's only equipment against nature (animal, vegetable and mineral), yet even these represented ages of experiment. Ideas of practical utility were hard to come by and slow in growth, and so, men's wishes outstripped their acts and built up an imaginary world transcending ordinary human limitations wherein men's shades became transfigured into gods. It is from this primitive ignorance of men that the concept of a "soul” (or psyche) was derived. The individual was credited with possessing an immortal shadow or second self, which controlled his body as a man operates any other inert object. “Mind” was held to dominate “matter,” and the “modern” psychologist, who clings tenaciously to this superstition does but proclaim how little, in this respect, he has progressed beyond the savage.
 
The materialistic Socialist, however, reviewing human history perceives how overwhelming has been the effect of economic development upon the habits of mankind and how, in practice, Christians and other metaphysicians have flown in the face of their avowed doctrines in the pursuit of their material interests.
 
The ruling classes throughout history have imposed systems of discipline and so-called education upon their subjects which would be meaningless if man’s “soul” controlled man’s behaviour. Is the “immortal” susceptible to training and the environment of the school? But let us return to our boiled beef and carrots!
 
The class to which you and I belong consists of individuals whose characters are as varied as their physical make-ups. In this respect it does not differ from the master-class nor, indeed, from any class that has ever existed. From this fact it is clear that social position does not rest upon individual character. A man is either a worker or a capitalist, not because he has a peculiar temperament or disposition, but because his environment and history have so determined. To explain the difference between him and others we can only refer to this same environmental history. Try how we will we cannot discover any mysterious entity which decides that certain individuals shall dig coal for a living while others clip coupons. In short, the illusion that “character is destiny” sums up the stupid conceit of the master-class, who childishly fancy that ”God” or “Fate” has blessed them with “superior natures.” They mistake the effect for the cause, and imagine that their privileged position is due to their “culture,” instead of realising that their "culture ” is the fruit of their privileged position in society.
 
Socialists aim at the foundation of a system based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means of living. In such a society individuals will continue to vary, but it is in the common necessities of all that social life is rooted. Capitalist society has long since ceased to be consistent with the satisfactory distribution of these necessities. Hence the turmoil of modern social life. The "superior persons” of the master-class will, no doubt, resist the change as long as possible; but every ruling class in history has bitten the dust in due course when economic development has dug its grave. Psychological trickery may delay, it cannot prevent, the slow but sure awakening of the working-class, the class whose mission is to give to capitalism a conclusive exit to the land of shades.
 
Eric Boden