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An Unlikely Story

Since the date was 200 R. W. – that is to say, 200 years since the human race had decided to establish a Rational World – it was announced that a lecture was to be given at the local meeting hall. The lecture was to be about the old society, the society that had been abolished when the revolution took place.

‘I know’, the lecturer began, ‘that when our new society was fully in operation, the old way of doing things seemed so indefensible that many of its details were quickly forgotten.’ However, he added, he had been doing much research, and now wished to describe the old society. The lecturer was quite deaf, and the noise he heard from time to time from his audience he took to be sounds of agreement. When he had finished, the chairman threw the meeting open. The first speaker from the floor politely thanked the speaker for coming to share his findings, but the rest of what he said was not so respectful.

‘I have to say’, he went on, ‘that I honestly couldn’t accept what the lecturer has told us tonight.  He claims that in the old days, when capitalism was rampant, society was divided basically into two classes. One class, much the smaller, owned everything worth owning – all the factories, the mines, the offices, the transport – everything: and they lived very comfortable, or even luxurious, lives, on the rent, interest and profit they gained from the work of the rest of the population. And all the work they (a few of them) did, if you could call it work, was to make sure the rest of the population worked for them. Everyone else had to spend their lives working for the benefit of this small owning class; and their returns from all their hard labour were very much smaller, and most of them spent their lives worrying about money, one way or another. Now I ask you – is that at all likely?  I mean, they were human beings then, just like we are human beings now.  How could they have put up with such a society?  I know they were deluged with propaganda practically from the time they were born – the newspapers, the radio, the television, the pulpits, the books – virtually all of them hammered home the idea that this was the only way humans could organize themselves, that anything else which might be suggested was just an impossible dream. I know all that.  But how could almost the entire human race accept such a system?  Not only was the structure of things theoretically unjust, in that the people who did all the work got a miserably small reward, just enough to keep them alive, and mostly in just sufficient health to enable them to spend their entire working lives labouring for the benefit of other people – I say, the system was not only theoretically unjust, but unjust in practice, in everyday reality, so that the great majority of people could see that they were being short-changed every day of their lives.  Now is it likely that human beings, people just like us, would calmly and patiently accept such rank injustice?’

He paused. ‘I suppose that if this state of affairs, if this monstrously unfair division of the good things of life between those who did not work but consumed in abundance on the one hand, and those who did all the work but consumed very little, on the other, was in some way hushed up, kept secret so far as that was possible – perhaps you could say that the secrecy might go some way to explaining why this society was accepted – not only by the small class of owners, but equally by the large class of workers. But there was no secrecy, no attempt at keeping this totally inequitable system under wraps. As the workers went each day to their work on their crowded buses or trains, they could, and did, read graphic descriptions in each day’s paper about the glorious lives lived by their betters. The working people went back every night to the little boxes they called homes, reading the evening papers with their full details of the vast mansions owned by the rich – many of them indeed, owning two or three or more of these palatial establishments in the very best parts of town, or in the country, surrounded by many acres of parks. Is it likely that anyone could accept such a state of things without trying immediately to overthrow it?  And yet the lecturer has tried to persuade us that the people of the so-called democracies voted at each election for politicians who promised them more of the same – while in other countries, ruled by dictators, people accepted that they were not even allowed to vote freely for the system that kept them in subjection. I just can’t swallow the stories told by this evening’s lecturer.’

The lecturer stood to reply.  ‘I agree that it’s all very, very unlikely, and yet it happened. People have often been unable to accept the obvious facts of existence.  When the great astronomer Galileo claimed that the earth moved round the sun, he was hauled in front of the Inquisition. Everyone knew that the earth stood still, while the sun, moon and stars moved round it, because the Bible said so in about five different places. Galileo was forced to recant, but he is supposed to have said afterwards, ‘Eppur si muove’ – ‘for all that, it does move’. And, believe it or not, just as nearly everybody then knew that the earth didn’t move, people before the revolution did support the old system – however unlikely it seems to us now. Don’t forget, our present system shows that ultimately people do accept the world as it is - just as even the religious people finally had to accept that the world does move.’