Analysis of Society. II. Ideas

Aa examination of society which ignored the social consciousness, the system of ideas which reflect social relations, would be obviously incomplete. It is characteristic of Socialism as a theory to be comprehensive, to view the various aspects of life as a whole and to see their real unity even in their seeming diversity.

On the contrary, capitalist philosophers are almost invariably idealistic. With them mind is something essentially different from matter and antagonistic to it. The process of thought they assume to be independent of any other process. In this they merely reflect the antagonistic relations from which they spring. A confused economic existence necessarily gives rise to illusions. Class domination expresses itself in class conceit, which is the certain father of self-deception.

The working class, which suffers most from the prevailing social chaos, can afford to have no illusions concerning that chaos. Since men act more or less in accordance with their ideas and since actions in the mass have a direct influence on social relations, ideas are of practical importance in so far aa they retard or assist the process of social evolution. In fact, the human brain may be said to be the turning-point of this process, which commences with the inward pressure of external conditions and reaches its climax in the conscious adaptation of social institutions to those conditions.

Two factors enter into the formation of ideas, viz., the sensory impressions of the objects of the outer world and the desires and emotions aroused by these impressions. The mind mirrors the relations between its organic basis—the body —and its environment.

Like other mirrors, it may from time to time give distorted, out-of-focus reflections, may even
show things as appearing the reverse of what they really are, but by the laws of its own nature it must eventually adapt itself to circumstance, i.e., reveal the truth, or perish ; and in this it shows itself to be of the same stuff as all other things organic. Its function is to provide a guide to its owner in the pursuit of his interests. All so-called inventions, “creative ideas,” etc. (apart from chance discoveries), which effect changes in external relations are the products of the re-action of desire on the accumulated fruits of experience.

From this it follows that the conflict of interests existing in society to-day breeds hostile ideas. The experience of one class is radically different from that of the other and so are its interests. Consequently while the notions of the dominant section become more and more conservative, the working class shows an increasing tendency to frame revolutionary conceptions, which must sooner or later lead to revolutionary actions. Hence the master class constantly endeavours to provide an artificial education for the workers which will divert their minds from direct observation and scientific induction, and induce them to accept as their own the views of their superiors.

In this process the preservation of traditional illusions phys a large part. Chief among these are religion, abstract morality, and the sophistries of party politics. In reserve the ruling class have the fundamental economic illusion, i.e., that the workers are in a state of pre-ordainad dependence upon capital and that their interests are therefore identical with those of the capitalists ; but they rightly consider economic discussions to be dangerous to their position and desire as long as possible to occupy their subjects’ minds with other topics.

Having already shown that the independent life which capital appears to possess is but the reflection of the living labour of which it is the product, and having thus exposed tha central fallacy of the capitalist mind, we can proceed to deal directly with the supplementary fallacies.

As a general rule illusions arise whenever human beings, confronted with problems which they have as yet no adequate means of solving, fall back on their imaginations for the solution, and accept its suggestions as facts. Thus primitive man, as he forsook his purely animal mode of life and launched out on the lengthy journey of industrial development, came into conflict with natural elements which had hitherto concerned his mind but little. The taming of stock and the cultivation of plants introduced him to strange phenomena in the way of floods, droughts, seasons, and other physical changes which affected his means of subsistence. He thus acquired an interest in and desire to master the natural elements which gave rise to them, and began to speculate on means to this end.

Lacking sufficient experimental data to frame general laws for his guidance, he fell back on the narrow circle of his ideas to explain the relations of the forces and objects around him. What these ideas lacked in breadth and profundity they made up in intensity. The savage notoriously fails to distinguish between realities and imaginations, actual sense-impressions and the mental reproductions of these. The memory of a dead man or a pre-existing state of affairs is as “real” to him as any objective perception of them. Consequently the most absurd and contradictory notions spring from his brain unquestioned by his reason, which can only develop after lengthy experience has exposed illusion. Primitive man’s memory of the dead merely means to him that the dead have two personalities, the body which perishes and the spirit. His recollection of things as they used to be indicates to him that affairs can be in two contradictory states at the same time. States of mind which under modern conditions we describe as hallucinations, lapse of memory, insanity, etc., characterised primitive society and harmonised with its impulsive moods and savage conditions.

From this mental atmosphere developed the fundamental tenets of religion, viz., the survival of the human personality after death and the existence of higher spirits which control the destinies of the world and mankind. At first these higher spirits were identified with natural elements, and to secure their favourable inclination toward his industrial efforts man adopted all possible arts of appeal, such as the sacrifice of the first-fruits, prayers, and sacred edifices. In those days there was no attempt to disguise the relations between religion and economic life, and as industry became more diverse in character, so there increased the number of divinities. In its development religion has followed the same course as the social conditions which it reflects. The division of primitive society into hostile tribes was religiously expressed in the distinctions between the “gods of our fathers” and “strange gods.” As society became more centralised the “strange gods” became converted into devils. The division of society into classes was accompanied by the development of a hierarchy in heaven. Paganism, with its wealth of fantasy, was a fitting emotional expression of the ancient world.

Just as feudalism was a kind of half-way house between chattel-slavery and wage-slavery, so it’s special form of religion, Catholicism, compromised the individualistic metaphysics of Christianity with Paganism. Lssser divinities became patron saints, and the harshness of monotheism was toned down for the popular mind by the deification of God’s carnal spouse.

Capitalism, however, is the sure foe of sentiment, chivalry, and the like. It brought with it sour Protestantism, determined to make this world more than ever a vale of tears for the masses. The numerous Catholic holy days interfered with business and so were abolished. “Freedom of contract” was accompanied by “free-thought,” competitive commercial anarchy by the disruption of the Church into sects. Along with the capitalist’s devotion to his individual accumulation of capital went his absorption with the salvation of his individual soul. In the production of commodities he was not concerned with their exterior qualities, which made them attractive to the flesh of mankind, but rather with their subtle, illusive essence, exchange-value, their spiritual community with money, the god of all commodities. So in religious matters he became a Puritan decrying the carnal and corporate expressions of belief and asserting his inner relation to his maker to be the sole claim on his conscience.

If he has since modified the exclusiveness of the form of his creed, that is only because of the pressing problem presented by the ever-increasing proletarian restlessness. For the workers heaven has long ago become the dullest of the phases of a remarkably dull existence. Their respect for the institutions which cause them so much trial and tribulation is if anything maintained mainly by fear of worse to come either here or hereafter.

The modern conception of God differs aa widely from a*ncient notions as the chief problem of the present does from those of old. Science, stimulated by the needs of capitalist industry, has driven the Almighty from one department of nature after another. Geology and astronomy have exposed him for a clumsy impostor, and his own defenders and representatives grow more and more rationalistic in dealing with nature.

Mankind has, however, yet to solve the economic riddle. The cause of poverty and all other social evils existent has still to be discovered by the mass of society. For them the mystery which formerly veiled the natural elements has now surrounded the products of labour, which in the form of commodities and money have manifested a singular intractability. Ignorant of the secret of their nature, which is essentially social, men are unable to control them. Consequently economic laws assert blind sway and society remains under the illusion that it is still in the grip of a higher power which is destined to work its will irrespective of human wishes. Civilised man is as superstitious as the savage but in another fashion. He mistakes a product of his own life-process for an independent being. Those who have assimilated the truths of economic science know that this “higher power” is simply capital. God, to-day, is nothing but the ideal expression of bourgeois prejudices, the spiritual guardian of the capitalist interest. His sole function is to keep the workers in a state of perplexed reverence for things as they are and the powers that be.

Let us now examine morality. Since the dawn of history every ruling class has framed what is called a moral code, according to which the actions of its members and its subjects are classed as right or wrong, praiseworthy or otherwise. So long as society rested on a communistic basis the habitual activities of men were in harmony, at least within the bounds of any given community. The development of hostile classes introduced hostile actions, and in order to preserve the social structure on which its power rested, the ruling class had, perforce, to resort to coercion, of which more hereafter. Legal codes were framed, the infringements of which were punished by the State. These, however, were mainly directed against the slave class. Freemen were expected to conform to dominant interests voluntarily. The old social instinct, which characterised the tribesmen, survived in a class form and became transformed into a conception of duty. The free citizens of ancient States showed a civic patriotism incomparably greater than the much-vaunted article of modern times. It was corrupted by the division of interests among the freemen and the accumulation of private wealth.

With the disappearance of chattel-slavery, the subject classes became included in the moral bond. Lords and vassals alike came under the code of honour, commonly called chivalry, according to which they were bound to protect their subordinates or support their superiors, as the case might be.

Capitalism put an end to all reciprocal personal sentiments between master and servant. The cash relationship is now the central feature of human existence. The only obligations which capital itself recognises are legal ones. This, however, cuts both ways. As the class struggle becomes more violent coercion becomes more and more expensive, and our masters “feel deeply” the need of some magic love potion to soothe the ruffled feelings of their slaves. Hence they try to revive the sentimental illusions of the past—for the exclusive guidance of the working class. They talk of the “brotherhood of capital and labour,” and endeavour to prove “moral justifications” for exploitation.

In the ancient and medieval worlds the interests of men were shrouded in mystery. Hence they found the explanation of their actions (which were the products of instinct derived from prolonged habit) in a sense of right and wrong. The capitalist class is not so constituted. It is class-conscious to the roots of its hair, whatever its colour may be, and it knows its interest to be dependent upon force in the last resort. So long as the workers remain ignorant of their class interests religion and morality will be preserved, but with the growth of a revolutionary consciousness among them these “eternal truths” will vanish like mists before the sun. Economic emancipation will be accompanied by intellectual and emotional freedom.

E. B.

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