Hope and Fear. A Philosopholgue
In a collection of sermons issued something like a generation ago, entitled : “Is Life Worth Living?” Dr. Clifford, the Baptist divine, used these words (pp. 3-4, 7th ed.) :
“It is not altogether a satisfactory social symptom that such a question has urged itself forward into our discussions in these later years. When a man begins to listen to the beatings of his heart, or asks the physician to apply the stethoscope to test the motions of his lungs, it is very likely there is something wrong with him. . . . And when men coldly speculate as to whether ‘life is worth living,’ we may be sure that is ominous of a wide-spread despair of the means of human satisfaction.”
Coming from a professional optimist these words are significant, and thirty years have added to rather than detracted from the force of their application. Well might we ask the hackneyed question when millions of the “youth and hope” of civilization rush in frenzy into the jaws of Death. Bright indeed is the philosophy that can carry us in confidence through a reign of terror.
Optimism or pessimism, which ? To the average mind to-day, nurtured in metaphysical habits of thought (glossed over, may be, by the superficial “dialectics” of the modern idealist school, there appears to be no alternatives but these, according to which either Good or Evil (note capitals) are predominant in human affairs and the universe generally. So it is that, when the monstrous fantasies on which we are from childhood invited to build our hopes have been dispelled by ruthless experience. There seems nothing left but blank despair in the face of overwhelming circumstance—unless in the process of disillusionment new habits of mind have been acquired, and the facts of life more deeply analysed.
Optimism is defined by the dictionary as “the doctrine that everything is ordered for the best” ; but what is “the best” ? And what power is capable of ordering “everything” therefor ? Any real standard of “good” or “the best” must be relative to certain particular circumstances of some particular person or persons ; and as there are fundamental differences in the circumstances of various persons, so there are radical distinctions in views of what is good or otherwise. To a firm of armament manufacturers war is a blessing ; to countless working-class households it is a source of deepest misery. Almighty, indeed, must be the power which can reconcile this contradiction alone, to omit the mention of innumerable others.
There are, of course, people capable of asserting that in the Divine plan of existence the experience of the sufferers is of inestimable moral value ; others even go the length of deeming it purely illusory—a figment of carnal sense. But it is a curious fact that the said sufferers seem to be the last to appreciate these spiritual truths. Shortage of provisions produces an unaccountably painful sensation in the alimentary canal, while so sentimental are some humans that the sight of a relation maimed, or the knowledge of his death, is even known to cause unbidden tears to rise.
Nevertheless we are told that “It is easy enough to be happy when life goes along like a eong ; but the man worth while is the man who will smile when everything goes dead wrong.” Unable to destroy the popular consciousness of evil, optimists profess to regard the deliberate cultivation of cheerfulness as a virtue. Carrying this mental attitude to its logical conclusion the working class should grin at a colliery explosion or a railway smash, and find a source of amusement generally in the myriad every-day afflictions the existing order of things compels them to bear. Indeed, the only form of optimism which recognises the necessity of providing something more than this absurdity for working-class supporters is the frankly religious, which offers death as the true solution of all human woes ! For of God and Immortality we can know nothing until we are stripped of the limitations of mortal sense, and in these alone, according to the creed, is happiness possible. “All’s well that ends well,” says the old saw, and assuming the truth of supernatural creeds any amount of suffering is simply part of the Divine plan of ordering everything for the best.
This brings us to a consideration of pessimism. The advance of modern science has had a two-fold effect. On the one hand it has vastly increased the poverty of the producing class and the wealth of those who own the improved means of wealth production ; on the other it has destroyed to a large extent the hold upon the mass of society of the supernatural creeds, which, as above indicated, “justify” the optimistic view of life. Hence with “this world” getting more unsatisfactory and “the next” vanishing into thin air, there has arisen a systematic philosophy of unbelief and despair.
That it is not popular with the ruling class is due to two causes : first, it contradicts their experience of life ; secondly, it is, at least implicitly, a condemnation of capitalism. A closer examination of pessimism, however, shows it to be based upon the same sort of illusion as optimism, i.e., the attribution of universality and absolute permanence to a tendency which is only characteristic of certain peculiar conditions in time and space.
Because there are external forces whose operations, at present uncontrolled by society, work havoc in the lives of the greater part of mankind, it in is fallaciously assumed that this always has and always will be the case. According to this creed, the human race is in the grip of a relentless Fate, whether personal or otherwise we know not, which automatically shatters every hope and mocks at all efforts. Yet the very process of scientific progress in industry gives the lie to this gloom which it produces. It is human genius that brings into being the contrivances for controlling and adapting the forces of nature to human ends. Blind fate cannot resist the ever-increasing encroachment of the torch of knowledge, and once the laws of the operations of the external forces are correctly understood it is but a step to the use of these forces. Harmony with one’s environment is the source of happiness ; the free and successful exercise of the faculties forms every joy. In so far, then, as the mass of mankind, i.e., the working class, find “life a burden,” we must seek the cause in some antagonism between their desires and the conditions wherein they are expected to satisfy them.
The first and fundamental desire of mankind, the working class included, is food. Activity demands energy, which in turn requires raw material. The source of raw material is external nature, but man s environment to-day by no means consists of nature, pure and simple : social man has built up an intermediate world of objects which are, in a sense, extensions of his faculties for obtaining sustenance from nature —means of production ; social organs.
This half human, half natural development has its own laws which must be understood by mankind before their action can be directed to the advantage of all. Otherwise our creation will be our master—in fact, this is exactly the position at the present day. The working class have developed the means of production, but the control thereof is not theirs. The sciences of nature and of man as independent objects have become widely understood, but the science of man’s adaptation of nature has yet to be mastered by the bulk of mankind to whom it matters.
This follows from the fact that while the forces of nature exist from time immemorial, the specific economic forces have only within recent years reached maturity. The past two centuries have witnessed an enormous change in the scale of man’s control of nature. Production has become manifestly social in character ; but as yet mankind blinks the fact, and makes no attempt to control production on scientific, i.e., social, lines. Private property in the means of production, a survival of the petty, immature stage of economic development, causes the social nature of these things to manifest itself through competition, with the result that a few climb up on the backs of the many, turning the very scale of production against the producers, filling their own laps with every luxury and reducing their fellows to poverty.
Thus the working class cannot satisfy a single one of their desires except by permission of the class that owns. Their lack of unity divorces them from their environment. Their ignorance of its nature leaves them at the mercy of the few who can exploit it. Yet as with Nature so with society, knowledge paves the way to control. Socialism, i.e., the social control of social forces, is the scientific, and therefore the only remedy, for working-class suffering. Once the workers know this it would be absurd to assume they will refuse to act accordingly.
Where then do Optimism and Pessimism come in ? What is their practical relation to the Socialist movement ? Optimism claims that this is the best of all possible worlds. All apparent pains are but the means by which the all-seeing Father secures our ultimate happiness. To attempt to secure it on our own by a social revolution is both impious and unnecessary. The Lord will provide !
Pessimism, on the other hand, bewails our impotence against the hand of fate. Sorrow and death are on every hand, and external forces are stronger than we ; to hope to control them is useless. The deepest desires are but a mockery ; for happiness is impossible and an illusion. Socialism ? Pooh ! If you abolished poverty tomorrow it would reappear the day after.
In short, both creeds accept the capitalist system as inevitable and necessary. Optimism is simply the endeavour of the ruling class to foist their own smug satisfaction with them¬selves and their system on to their slaves as the only correct opinion and guide of life. It is rejected by all who have passed through the fires and floods of working-class existence and found it horribly wanting in practical comfort even in spite of previous prejudices in its favour.
Pessimism is but the inevitable reaction based on disappointment in optimism; a despair of capitalism coupled with an ignorance of any means of ending it.
It, likewise, is rejected by all who have analysed the conditions of working class existence discovering that the very forces which in their progress at present accentuate poverty, provide a basis for a system of life in which comfort and happiness shall be the birthright and constant possession of all.
Socialists are well aware that the fulfilment of their object will not abolish the natural pains and penalties of existence. That death must terminate each individual life is a somewhat self-evident proposition ; but we see no reason to take refuge in a life beyond the grave as our hope, even though at present the clouds be thick and lowering. Spiritual conceptions from their very nature can have no scientific basis. The very “infinity” of the “faculty” and “object” of faith makes it possible by faith to “believe” anything. The hard facts of existence, however, ultimately prove too strong for such beliefs, no matter how tenaciously they may be held.
But because we reject childish fairy tales of God and Immortality we do not, therefore, abandon all “confidence in the worth and serviceableness of human life” as Dr. Clifford asserted we must (p. 4).
We still find ourselves possessed of faculties and desires which seem to demand a material world for their exercise and satisfaction rather than a spiritual fantastic. The limitations against which we chafe are not those of nature, but rather those which have arisen in history from understandable causes capable of being removed by human action. This accomplished we are confident that our lives will rise to a dignified natural
At present we find ourselves hemmed in. Our energies must be prostituted to the class who rule.
Since, then, for the nonce, real life is for us impossible, let us seek expression in revolt ; in the conscious and deliberate effort to wrench the power from that class which uses it to our detriment, i.e., the ownership of the means of life, secured by political control. This is our only hope ; all else is illusion.