Book Review: Is Revolution ahead?
THE SOCIAL PROBLEM by Chas. A. Ellwood, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology in the University of Minnesota. New York: Macmillan Co. 235 pp. 5/6 net.
“Nothing can prevent a war throughout Western civilization between the possessors and the dispossessed—a war infinitely more horrible than the present one—nothing except the dominance in the mass of individuals, or at least in the leaders of both classes, of intelligence and of the ideals of peace and brotherhood.” (p. 223.)
This is the burden of the book in a nutshell. The “Social Problem” according to the author, is to harmonise the warring factors that are wrecking civilization. Of these factors he claims that the one to ba relied upon is the “spiritual.” He says:
“If the governing class will keep in touch with all classes; if those in authority in law, in industry, in education, in religion will seek first the public good ; if all classes will seek to keep open the means of understanding and sympathy with all other classes, there will be no more need of revolution as a means of social progress than there is of children’s diseases in individual development.” (p. 231.)
We have it, on the best authority that there is much virtue in your “if.” And the professor has by no means exhausted its possibilities. For example, if———, But why go on? The labouring man is learning in bitterness how utterly futile is the expectation that those in authority in industry, law and all the rest, will ever “seek first the public good.” Therefore from the facts upon which the learned professor bases his case we know that revolution is inevitable. Not only is it inevitable, but the professor himself tells us that it is also justifiable, for he says (p. 100) :
“The sacrifice of life through industrial accidents and disease, through overwork and underpay, through unsanitary dwellings, through commercialized pandering to men’s vicious appetites, we must cease to tolerate among us if we are to progress either morally or physically. The evils of war are great, but they are no greater than these evils of peace which we have tolerated too long.”
It appears, however, that it is not so much the evils of today which move the professor, as the fear of revolution. He indicates with apprehension (p. 83) that the industrial system generates class antagonism ; that class conflicts increase ; that class interest has become a war cry ; that class hatred grows ; and that a gulf, in social conditions as well as in feeling, develops between the fortunate and the less fortunate: “a gulf which the sympathy and understanding necessary for social solidarity finds it difficult to bridge,”
And how does the author set about his difficult task ? In the first place by defining the social problem as “the problem of humans living together.” The definition is significant. It implies that a means is to be found of softening the antagonisms so that capitalist and labourer can peacefully live together. It leads him naturally to a gospel of social harmony by means of reform and mutual concession. Above all he abhors revolution. It is the end of all things. Like practically all of capitalism’s salaried intellectuals, he fears the working class far more than he dislikes his present masters ; and there is nothing he dreads more than a working-class dictatorship. Like most of his brethren, also, he agrees with all progressive thought—to a certain extent, and there are few advanced movements that do not get a kind word from him. But what he thinks the world really needs is a “new soul,” even more than a new economic system.
On the professor’s own showing, however there is little hope for his solution. He acknowledges that the gulf between the classes widens ; that the rulers are deaf to humanity ; and that the workers are without “soul.” He laments that the machinery for national and social peace inevitably breaks down, Yet he hopes by religion, by moral education, and by social reform to reform that growing social antagonism which these things have not only failed to arrest, but have tended to foster.
He grants that material conditions mould at least the framework of “our” civilization, and that these conditions tend to sharpen social contrasts and defeat his aims ; yet he claims, in effect, that out cf the minds of trained leaders, despite the hostile influences of economic forces as a whole, an intellectual force will be made to flow which will check these dangerous influences and divert them into harmonious streams.
Thus Professor Ellwood finds it necessaty to reject the materialist conception of history and seek help from a dualism which relies mainly on the idea of free will, the immortal soul, and that god-given moral force by which any man can rise superior to, and dominate, his circumstances whenever he cares to exercise the will to do so. In short, the writer of the book takes sides with the priest, the Christian-scientist, the charlatan, the ignoramus and the metaphysician, on this important issue. Since, however, few will take up a logical position on that side owing to the very obviousness of most of the facts against them, a refuge is sought in a catholic eclecticism, the confusion of which makes it extremely difficult to nail down the basic error.
The professor is, nevertheless, for all his eclecticism, clear-headed enough to see where the chief danger to his position lies. He devotes considerable space to a discussion of the materialist conception of history. He admits practically all that is contended for in that philosophy ; but since he must find some way of escape, he does so by misunderstanding or misrepresentation. He
“cordially acknowledges the complete dependence of civilized man upon the economic system under which he lives ”
and goes on to say that
“the dependence of man upon economic conditions increases as civilization advances “But,” he adds, “when we have conceded that modern industry has shaped the main outlines of our civilization, that is not sufficient warrant for concluding that our industrial system determines every thing in our social life. On the contrary, it needs but little investigation to show that there are many intimate personal relations which are very far from being determined by the economic system under which we live. Men still think and feel and act in these intimate relations not so differently from what they did long before the present economic system was born. Many of the ideas, ideals and values by which men live, in other words, far antedate our present economic system, and will probably survive it long after it is dead. It is not true, therefore, that the spiritual elements in life, and especially not those contained in moral, religious and artistic ideas and ideals, are determined by methods of producing and distributing wealth.”
In other words, because all men’s ideas and acts are not entirely explicable from the present economic system alone, therefore the materialist conception of history is an error. The professor’s misrepresentation is obvious. Whence come those ideas for which the present system cannot account ? They do not come from God. They cannot be uncaused. We know them to be accounted for by past social conditions. Many intimate acts and relations of men antedate all historical forms of society, They are the outcome of the primitive struggle for survival over other animals. Other customs and ideas originate at various economic stages in mankind’s advance towards what is called civilization. It has never been said that the existing system alone accounted for everything in man’s ideas and acts. That is a fiction of the professor’s, and shows to what he is reduced in order to make a case. Ideas that are the outcome of past social conditions tend to persist, and are altered or modified where they come into conflict with succeeding social orders. This is notoriously the case, as shown in the pamphlet published by the Socialist Party, in the matter of religion to which the professor refers. The modifications that have taken place in this phase of ideology reflect in sn obvious way the changing needs of changing social conditions.
For the rest, as the author of the book under review rightly surmises, revolution is inevitable in the event of the failure of his panacea. Neither in the working class nor in the ruling class can the soulful humanitarian ideals upon which he relies become dominant. Our social circumstances destroy them. Present economic conditions sow hate, not love. Figs cannot grow on thistles. If it were necessary to wait for a complete moral regeneration of the working class ; if the mass had first to overflow with love and charity for our oppressors, our case as well as the professor’s, would be utterly helpless. Fortunately it is not so. Economic development is with us. On it our essential case rests. The propaganda of revolutionary socialism is a direct effect of existing social conditions. Capitalist conditions indelibly stamp the ruling class with the selfish, cruel and hypocritical qualities of the exploiter ; and we know what a little part sentiment plays in the struggle. Therefore are we undismayed, even at the prospect of a ruthless and hate-inflamed proletariat battling desperately for the destruction of the present hellish system in order to make at last possible that development of society which shall, through social co-operation and mutuality of interest make realisable for the first time since primitive communism, the ideals of social harmony and human brotherhood.
F, C. W.