Correspondence: Is Society an Organism?


The question of the organic nature of Society is only of interest to us, as Socialists, in so far as it throws light on Socialist policy ; and it is to be regretted that Mr. Wright has not, in his letter in the January number, discussed the subject from this point of view. Indeed, he ignores the bulk of the evidence brought forward on this matter, and confines himself to some word-twisting on one or two relatively unimportant points; the discussion, therefore, becomes to a large extent unprofitable. I cannot, however, refrain from joining issue with him on the few points he does raise.

Let me, in the first place, assure Mr. Wright that I had no intention of questioning his good faith when I alluded to him as being professedly revolutionary. 1 intended to convey that, in my opinion, his ideas on the nature of Society are not consistent with his revolutionary views. This opinion I still hold, while disclaiming any unkind intentions which my words may have appeared to show.

In his main argument Mr. Wright has shifted ground. He said in his first letter: “Reminding you that human society must be as complex and contain the same organic parts as its individual members, I will ask, to where in Society canyon point and say : ‘There are the brains of Society, there are the lungs of Society, there is the heart of Society, and so on.” Clearly the argument here is not that Society may differ from, or be more complex than, its organic unit, but that it must be, as a whole, alike in structure and alike in functions; an identity that he makes to extend even to motherhood and childbirth ! The fallacy of this was shown by taking Mr. Wright’s own analogy of the human body, where the organic unit—the cell—is not the same either in structure or function as the human body as a whole, for new combinations produce new conditions and results. Just as the organisation and differentiation of innumerable cells produce, in the human being, an entity vastly different from the individual cell, so the necessary and involuntary organisation of men in Society produces a social organism very different from the individual human being. Mr. Wright, however, now endeavours to make it appear that his argument was, that Society, to be an organism, should be at least as complex as its organic unit. But he surely wastes his time in arguing that the human body, since it contains cells, is at least as complex as those cells ; for precisely the same is true of Society which is composed of human beings. It is, indeed, mere tautology, and no argument against the organic nature of Society at all. I must, indeed, decline to credit Mr. Wright with having originally intended anything so childish. The whole trend of his first argument was that Society, to be an organism, must be a huge human being, with brains, heart and lungs, going through childbirth and motherhood, the absurdity of which is seen in that by the same reasoning the human body to be an organism should be only one huge cell, and propagate by fission.

My statement that “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,” is quite correct, for though even according to Mr. Wright’s reasoning Society cannot be less complex than individual human beings since it contains them, nevertheless Society as a whole does not reproduce the same definiteness and rigidity of outline as does the human body.

In like manner many of the Protozoa (Cenobia) consist of mere aggregations of cells with scarcely a trace of specialisation, and the individual Protozoa, as an entity, is much less constant and definite in form and size than are the regular and definite cells of which it is composed.

The tenour of Mr. Wright’s argument, may be further seen in the following from his second letter. He says : “If a man is subject to certain conditions, surely it follows that his individual cells are subject to the same conditions. Society, therefore, can have no conditions apart from its component cells.” Since Society, like any other organism, is but the combination of its component cells, it follows that Mr. Wright is gravely informing us that “Society can have no conditions apart from Society,” which is very thoughtful of him. Had this been all he intended to convey he doubtless would not have written, but the matter is so worded as to give colour to the absurdity that underlies his whole argument, and which has already been dealt with: to wit, that Society must, as a whole, be the same in the distribution of its parts and in its functions, as the individual unit or cell.

Mr. Wright disagrees with my illustration of the hive bees because the drones do not own and control the means of production and distribution. My analogy, however, was sound, and clearly illustrated my point; though, it is true, the bees do not possess the vote ! The drones, like our capitalist class, live upon others labour, and at one period of their existence both were necessary to the advance of their respective social organisms ; and the drones, like our present capitalist class, outlive their usefulness and must be driven out.

To admit that the hive of bees or colony of ants are social organisms, and at the same time deny the organic nature of human Society would be inconsistent, and Mr. Wright, though careful to say that he does not positively deny that Society is an organism, would, apparently, embrace any absurdity rather than admit that it is ; so the fact that the hive of bees is a social organism is consequently not recognised.

The denial of the organic nature of Society usually arises from Utopianism and an unscientific view of sociology ; it arises from a conception that men are entirely free agents, and that Society as a whole is a voluntary social contract. A very important part of our work consists in pointing out that Society is not a piece of architecture thrown up according to preconceived human plans, but an organism that developes and grows according to discoverable laws; and that human ideas are in their origin the result or reflex of social life and growth; while the intellectual movements of mankind are in reality secondary to, and evidences of adaptation to, great and irresistible economic changes.


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