1900s >> 1906 >> no-28-december-1906

Is Society an Organism ?

The question of Socialist policy is raised in a new manner by Mr. Philpott Wright in a letter which appeared in the last issue of this journal. He, it appears, does not agree that Society is an organism, and even asserts that should Society be found to be an organism in fact, then the policy of the revolutionary Socialist must in consequence be wrong. Now, Mr. Wright’s attitude, as I shall endeavour to show, is based on several curious misapprehensions both of the nature of Society and of the essentials of an organism.

An organism defined

In the first place, in order to decide whether Society is an organism or not, it is necessary to know the essential characteristics of an organism, and the following, I think, fairly defines them. To be an organism, Society must grow, that is, combine external material with its own substance; it must also have some degree of involuntary, necessary, interdependence or cohesion between its essential parts or mass ; it must possess incipient or advanced differentiation of function between its parts ; and, above all, it must possess the quality of life, or change and development due to the influence of its environment and to the reaction of its own expansive energy, in other words, it must possess the faculty of the “adjustment of the internal relations to external relations.”

The social organism fulfils all these requirements, and though the highest types of human Society may be indefinite as compared with the human body, yet they are much more definite than many low forms of organic life. To enumerate briefly Society’s organic attributes, we find that individuals in Society are necessarily and involuntarily interdependent, for shelter, for defence, and for food; indeed, without this organic interdependence, modern aggregations, from the savage pack to civilised society, would be utterly unable to exist in the land they now occupy. We find that differentiation of function, itself mainly involuntary, is represented by the highly complex division of labour which has grown up in the production of the necessaries of life. Class division and class rule are, in their inception, also the outcome of this division of labour ; in the earlier stages chiefly to provide the necessary stability, order, and military defence, demanded by the continued production of the material necessities of life ; in later stages to provide also the political or social order essential to the expansion and development of the prevailing methods of producing wealth. The social organism, we find, also lives and grows, it increases in size and complexity, it adapts itself to the changes in its environment, to the altered conditions resulting from its increasing size and growing needs, and to the influence of other social organisms. Society, then, is undoubtedly an organism.

The confirmation of authority

Mr. Wright,however, makes the astonishing statement that he has ”studied the subject for some years” and has “been unable to find an atom of evidence to prove that Society is an organism.” He also asks “how can Society be said to even resemble an organism ?” Herbert Spencer’s work in this connection is too voluminous to be detailed here, but summaries of his conclusions are reproduced in even elementary handbooks which no genuine student could ignore. Space forbids the quotation of the whole of Professor Hudson’s summary of Spencer’s parallelisms between individual and social organisms, but for Mr. Wright’s benefit I epitomise the main points.

Both societies and individual organisms insensibly augment in mass, and assume during growth a continually increasing complexity of structure. In the early stages of a society as in an undeveloped individual organism, there is scarcely any mutual dependence of parts, and both gradually acquire a mutual dependence that becomes at last so great that the life of each part is made possible only by the life and activity of the rest. In each also, the life and development of the whole organism are independent of, and far more prolonged than, the life and development of any of its component units, who severally are born, grow, reproduce and die, whilst the body politic composed of them survives many generations, increasing in mass, completeness of structure, and functional activity.

Herbert Spencer and others have so firmly established the fact of the organic nature of Society that one is surprised to find it brought into question. Indeed, to deny that Society is an organism is to fall back upon the exploded ideas of the physiocrats, of Locke, and Rousseau, who regarded Society as a voluntary association founded upon a purely imaginary “state of nature.”

The misunderstanding of the nature of an organism under which Mr. Wright labours, is made plain when he says: “human society to be an organism must be as complex and contain the same organic parts as its individual members.” To take only the type of organism recognised in his letter, the human body, that is entirely composed of cells. It is indeed a colony of cells which have in the course of evolution attained their present functional differentiation. Each individual cell does not reproduce the same complexity, nor does it contain the same organic parts, as the human body in its entirety. Obviously, then, Mr. Wright is wrong. The assumption that the structure of an organism as a whole must be reproduced in its every unit crops out again in his query : “Where in Society can you point and say, there are the brains, there are the lungs, and there is the heart of Society.” Apparently he refuses to believe that Society is an organism because he cannot see its feet !

Unwarrantable assumption

From one unwarranted assumption Mr. Wright is led to another, for he assumes that the necessary episodes in the development of the individual human being must be literally reproduced in the social organism in the form of motherhood, rearing of the “baby society,” etc. That the material basis of the new social form must be completely developed or prepared under the old social order itself, was clearly shown in the long quotation from Marx given by T. A. Jackson in a previous controversy. But it is, above all, evident that while all organisms conform to fundamental evolutionary laws, yet each particular organism has also its own lines of development due to its own peculiar conditions. Hence the development of the social organism will not necessarily proceed on all fours with the development of any individual organism whatsoever. The way Society developes depends upon its own peculiar conditions, internal and external.

In view of these facts the whole of Mr. Wright’s argument falls to the ground, for he has assumed that Society, if an organism, must develope in the same way as the human body; when he should instead have studied the peculiar nature of the social organism, and from an examination of its economics and history have traced the laws of development peculiar to it. The question as to whether the reformer or the Socialist is right in his policy does not depend upon Mr. Wright’s conception of an organism at all, but upon whether the position of the revolutionary Socialist is, or is not, in accord with the facts of Society’s growth and structure. If the Socialist analysis of Society and History is correct, then, whether Society be called an organism or a plum pudding makes not the slightest difference in the result.

Though professedly revolutionary, Mr.Wright informs us (in italics) that “a new society has never been born in the whole recorded history of civilisation.” It is a moot point whether that is meant simply as a play upon the word “born,” or whether it is intended to convey the absurdity that only one form of political society has ever existed, and that (to adapt Mr. Wright’s metaphor) the French Republic, for instance, is but the society of Louis XVI “with its moustache waxed.” If he does not mean this, if he means by “society” in this case not solely the political and legal superstructure but the whole social organism, and that no new social organism has arisen during historic times, then he might have saved himself the trouble of writing, for every Socialist knows that in each case the various stages of the ever-changing methods of production, and the political revolutions to which their changes have given rise, and the new forms of exploitation and political societies of which these revolutions have been the starting points, have been episodes in the life history of one and the same social organism.

The argument amplified

The inevitable double use of the word “Society” is, perhaps, the cause of confusion, for like many another word it has more than one meaning. In one sense it stands for the social organism in its entirety, in another it means solely the political and judicial superstructure as distinct from the gradually changing economic basis. The distinction may be made clear by a very homely illustration. The social organism may be compared with the common lobster in its outer skeleton or shell, while Society in the political sense may be likened to the shell alone, A useful function is performed by the shell in the life of the lobster, but as the animal grows the shell gradually becomes unsuited to it and impedes its further development. Now the shell, having outlived its usefulness, is shed so that the animal may continue to grow, and the new shell which is formed is suited to the next stage in the animal’s development. This casting of the shell occurs as often as the growth of the lobster requires it, and literally fulfils Mr. Wright’s demand for an organism which “kills off its organic parts and still waxes stronger and stronger.”

Society in the narrower sense is, then, the political and legal superstructure or shell of the social organism transformed or created by the class whose political control has been necessitated by the conditions of production of the material livelihood. Owing to the continuous development of the methods of wealth production and the changed social relationships thereby caused, the ruling class and the social order they have formed are gradually turned from forms of development of the economic forces into hindrances or fetters. At length economic conditions develope so far under the old society that they are ripe for, and necessitate, the change; then ensues a period of revolution, and the ruling class, having become functionless or worse, must give way to new control and interests in harmony with the new economic conditions and the further development of Society as a whole. This seizure of political power by a hitherto oppressed class is a revolution whether accomplished peaceably or the reverse, and sooner or later the whole political and legal superstructure, and the old property relations, undergo a transformation into a social order in harmony with the now paramount interests and conditions. A new society is born, and a further stage in the development of the productive forces is rendered possible by the destruction of the old legal and social forms which hindered their expansion and full use.

Manifestations of organic growth

It being the nature of men and classes to cling to privilege and power until compelled to abandon them, it is evident that the class struggle is engendered by the very nature of the social organism, just as truly as the struggle of the crustacean to free himself from his outgrown shell is imposed by the laws of his organic being. Mr. Wright, therefore, is in error in supposing that the existence of internecine strife negates the social organism. No organism is entirely free from internal strife, but the higher in the scale of organisation and the healthier the organism, the more does strife become subordinate to the welfare of the whole.

In the wonderful social organism of the hive bee, which presents several striking analogies with humanity, we see a state of things very similar to that which Mr. Wright describes as a “monstrosity seen only in nightmares.” We see the working bees overworked, emaciated, and dying in hundreds in the struggle for existence. We see the drones, fat, and lazy, and fed by the workers. The function of the drones is to fertilise the queen bee, and their numbers and the food they consume are out of proportion to their usefulness, Until their function has been fulfilled, however, the gluttonous drones are tolerated ; but soon after the queen bee has been fertilised, at a period after the function of the drones has been fulfilled, the working bees drive out or exterminate the drones who have become functionless and unnecessary.

Mr. Wright attaches too much importance to the idea that evolution is solely a continuous and equable process. Herbert Spencer has, in his “Law of the Rhythm of Motion,” demonstrated the universal ebb and flow of life, and Professor De Vries, at Hamburg, pointed out that “plant and animal species remain for a long time unchanged ; some finally disappear, when they have become old and unfit for the conditions of life, which have in the meantime altered. Others are more successful, and, to use his very expression, ‘explode’ and give life to numerous new forms, of which some assert themselves and multiply, and others, which are unfit for the conditions of life, disappear.” Again, Professor Darwin, in his Presidential address to the British Association last year, stated that, “the physicist, like the biologist and the historian, watched the effect of slowly varying external conditions, he saw the quality of persistence or stability gradually decaying until it vanished, when there ensued what was in politics called a revolution.” He added that in biology they should “expect to find slight continuous changes occurring during a long period of time, followed by a somewhat sudden transformation into a new species, or by rapid extinction.”

The Revolutionary method justified

The phenomenon of metamorphosis, the many examples of sudden change of method function which abound in nature, together with the opinion of many scientists, all show that revolution is part and parcel of the evolutionary process. But it should be borne in mind that in the natural sciences as well as is sociology, the period of more than usually rapid change that is called revolution, is in general primarily a change of function rather than a change of structure. Kautsky’s illustration of the birth of a child is intended to make that clear. This fact, together with the necessity for the revolutionary method in working-class politics, may be shown by an illustration drawn from Society itself.

The huge and complex machinery and methods of production which constitute a great trust can only be the outcome of a prolonged evolution or growth, but the huge trust itself may most easily be made to minister to the well-being of those who were formerly exploited by it, by it being taken over by the people at one blow. The idea of the trust being socialised piecemeal and gradually, item by item, is preposterous. With the socialisation of the trust, then, there occurs only a slight change in structure—but an entire change of function. But that is not all. Before this can occur, in order that the taking over by Society of the trust may really change its function from a means of profit to the capitalist into a means of well-being to the workers, it is necessary that Society be identified, not with the exploiters, but with wealth producers. Hence the necessity for the social revolution before all things, for only when the political power has been wrested from the now useless capitalist class can the political machinery and the economic forces developed under capitalism be transformed in function from instruments of exploitation and oppression into the means of life and happiness of a people.

I would like to have gone further, and to have shown how the nature and fuller development of the vast associated methods of production of to-day necessitate social organisation and democratic control, and how the great power of social production must render the existence of any functional governing class henceforth unnecessary by the liberation of the mass of mankind from the greater part of the toil of production; and how the great power of social production must render the existence of any functional governing class henceforth unnecessary by the liberation of the mass of mankind from the greater part of the toil of production; and how also the social organism with the attainment of Socialism approaches that stage of unity and organised directive intelligence and power which may fairly be called the attainment of social consciousness. But, like Mr. Wright, I am constrained to apologise for the length of my epistle, which already has far exceeded the modest limits I had at first assigned to it. Sufficient has, I think, been said to show at all events, that Mr. Wright’s objections to the reality of the organic nature of Society do not hold, being based on mistaken ideas of the essentials of an organism and of the nature of Society.


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