Is the Materialist Conception of History sufficient?

[A continuation of the correspondence between members of the S.P.G.B., the first portion of which appeared in the last issue.]

The contribution to the discussion with which you have favoured me corroborates the position taken up by Comrade R. Kent in the article he contributed some months back now to THE SOCIALIST STANDARD with which I found myself in complete agreement. But in a discussion with a friend of mine on the aforesaid article, he saw fit to object, that it is not possible for a man to look at the Social Problem as a man would look at a picture. And while I do not for one moment admit the impossibility of the attitude for which I have repeatedly argued, I am of opinion that to approach sociology in the same frame of mind as biology is and has been approached is. to say the least of it, difficult. The “furies of private interest” (unconscious as well as conscious), do undoubtedly act and act forcibly, and the question arises whether a man can get outside himself to look at such a question in the desired way. Is it possible to ignore the action of our individual promptings ? In many cases the wish is unconsciously father to the thought. Some wise person has said that man does not know how anthropomorphic he is, and it seems to me he does not know how far he is influenced by his own wishes, etc.

But the point that I desire to raise is that while it is undoubtedly true that the ultimate explanation of any force or condition in Society is to be found in the means adopted by men to satisfy their material wants (I never objected to that), is it sufficient, to explain their origin ? When you have explained the origin of man’s ideas as arising through economic and material channels, that does not explain the possible reaction of those intellectual forces on the economic and material conditions. We see that colonies, once the markets for an industrial and colonising country, themselves become industrial and enter the field, ofttimes in competition with the mother country herself ; or the grown chick enters into competition with its own forbear and ultimately squeezes it out of existence. Is it sufficient to say that such a country developed her industry through the action of her functioning as a recipient of the commerce of the parent ? Or is it necessary to take into consideration the reaction set up by that process ? So with our social problem. Granting that the root of the whole lies in the economic development; granting that the change must primarily be economic, it still seems that to attain the desired economic revolution, it is first necessary to revolutionise men’s ideas and men’s conceptions. In other words change the existing intellectual conditions so as to change and improve the economic conditions, in order to make possible still further intellectual advancement.

Consider the Socialist propaganda. It is, in my opinion, one of the most necessary elements towards the revolution. Yet it has little direct economic significance. It is an appeal to the ethical and intellectual faculties of the audience, and until we have made the demand for Socialism, Socialism will not come. The creation of that demand is an intellectual, rather than an economic, process.

It may be that I am mistaken, but your illustration of the clay balls seems to leave somthing out, viz., the reaction of the balls on their environment. Without overlooking the differences that may exist in the hardness or the softness of the balls, which may be taken to correspond to the varying resistance offered by individuals to the pressure of the environment, it must not be lost sight of that this “resistance” is purely “passive,” whereas the more or less conscious resistance of the individual to his environment is more active and has a modifying effect on the environment. To tell me that the intelligence of the individual which consciously resists its environment is the result of helps me but little, for I want to know how that intelligence can be so awakened as to be made to forcibly, actively, consciously, and definitely act on its immediate environment in order to alter it.

The same thing applies, of course, more or less, to biological as against sociological questions. In sociological questions you have to reckon with an intellectual consciousness that does not (so far as I know) obtain to the same extent in other scientific problems.

Yours fraternally,
To awaken that consciousness,


Comrade F. C. Watt’s rejoinder will appear in the next issue.

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