Orthodoxy. A Study in the Moulding of the Social Mind


So far, we have only considered those agents of orthodox thought which influence the proletarian’s mind during childhood, and before (except in cases affected by the half-time system) he begins his allotted life-work (in the most literal sense) as a unit in the vast social mechanism of the wealth-producing process, or in the other spheres where the labour-power of the workers functions.

When the worker, upon leaving school, steps into the “world at large,” he does so, as we have seen, with his brain oppressed with crude, barbaric superstitions—the legacy of a bygone age—and with false, distorted notions regarding his relations to his fellow men and to the social institutions, political, economic and otherwise, of the society in which he lives. Upon these ideas, these principles and doctrines which he believes in, all his conceptions of right and wrong, of justice and freedom, in short, all his moral ideas, are based.

But at this stage in his career the experience of the proletarian rapidly undergoes a great widening. Now, perhaps, he comes into personal contact with some of those real, hard facts of life which hitherto were either entirely hidden from him or were mainly seen through the distorting lenses of orthodox vehicles of thought.

Should he, for instance, in company with his fellows, strike work, he may very easily make a close acquaintance with that bourgeois idol, the “arm of the law,” by having his cranium split with a police club. Should the Army or the Navy “corner” him, he will undoubtedly see a few things which don’t exactly fit in with the ideas he previously held regarding these “glorious” institutions. When he sees thousands of working men like himself suddenly cast out of employment to endure slow starvation; nay, when he himself, with his wife and little ones, become the victims of “lack of work,” and, tramping the highways, he sees on every hand the warning, “no admittance except on business” ; when he sees the minions of the law everywhere an obstacle to his even meagrely satisfying the pangs of hunger ; when, in brief, he finds that society challenges even that which be considered beyond dispute—his right to live—he may well ask himself whether all this is satisfactorily explained by the ideas about society which he has hitherto accepted.

Perhaps even some of the relatively scarce anti-orthodox literature may get into his hands and “prejudice” him with “dangerous” ideas. In a thousand ways his continually increasing and expanding experience may give rise to conceptions which contradict those which he has been taught to regard as true, thus bringing him down from the airy metaphysical world of unreality in which the orthodox live, and giving him a truer perspective regarding the class, the society, the world, and the universe forming his environment.

Some correctives, something to counteract this tendency by continually endeavouring to keep the mental outlook of the proletarian steadfastly orthodox, is obviously required if the master class is for long to retain its supremacy unchallenged. As would, therefore, be expected, institutions do exist which perform this function, and perform it most admirably ; institutions which, like the schools, serve the interests of the ruling class by insidiously supporting in every way possible the mendacious and twisted concepts which hold together in precarious unity the antagonistic elements composing existing society.

Already, perhaps, the worker, even while of school age, has begun to attend the mystic ceremonials of god-worship. Here, half hypnotised by the solemn music and the haunting chants, he listens to the sonorous intonations of the priest, a man skilled in the compounding of phrases with high-sounding words, but usually devoid of intelligent meaning, and cunningly-calculated to soothe into contentment the weary and the heavy-laden. Preying upon the ignorance of his hearers, he is a lineal descendant in the social scale of the ghost raising, devil-snatching medicine-man before whom our savage ancestors cowered in a veneration born of fear. By trying to turn the workers’ eyes away from their material ills and on to supposedly spiritual ones, the parson betrays himself, and reveals what he, consciously or unconsciously, really is—a tool in the hands of the master class ; an agent for the maintenance of its dominion.

For reasons which will later be explained, of far greater importance and influence than the Church is the orthodox Press. The very publication of cheap and popular newspapers having frequent editions and vast circulations is only possible given highly expensive and elaborate machinery, and thus demands a considerable accumulation of capital. In the main they are owned by, and run in the interests of, capitalists, and as the bourgeoisie are almost invariably orthodox, or where they are not are compelled by self-interest to appear so, we rarely find any expressions in the popular Press of unorthodox opinions.

The influence of capital upon the Press is also felt in other and quite as efficacious ways. The low price and consequent popularity of newspapers depends to a great extent upon an income derived from the advertising of capitalistic products. Add to this the ever-watchful eye of the capitalist-controlled governmental censors, who, if not all always in evidence, are always “there,” and it will be realised how complete is the subservience of the Press to the interests of capital.

For the working class the capitalist Press provides the major part, often, indeed, practically the whole, of the reading matter which their condition allows them the opportunity or the inclination to digest. As the matter it presents as information lies for the most part outside the personal experience of the vast majority of its readers, the Press has abundant opportunity of misrepresenting, distorting, and suppressing facts which do not fit in with orthodox conceptions, and, needless to say, it makes full use of them. Thus does the Press mould the “public opinion” of the moment.

But it must not be assumed, as it sometimes is, that it can do this entirely of its own effort. The Press only sees to it that the general principles already accepted by the bulk of those who read its columns are not contradicted, but are, on the contrary, invariably supported by the information which it imparts, and thus, by an accumulation of detailed evidence, continue to invigorate those principles with apparent truth.

To avoid misunderstanding, let it be made quite clear that it is not claimed that the capitalist newspapers are unanimous in the opinions which they express, for that would be absurdly and obviously untrue. Whilst differing among themselves as to details and matters of minor social importance, usually following such differences in the capitalist class itself, the Press as a whole, like the master class as a whole, is united upon fundamental principles. The journals which comprise it are one in their determination to preserve the system of capitalism, and are agreed upon theprimary means of doing so. They all support the bourgeois orthodox doctrine, which includes the sacredness of capitalist property, the identity of interests between the capitalists and the wage workers, patriotism, and some kind of religion, usually Christianity.

What applies to the Press in this matter applies in an almost equal measure to the bulk of the other literature published to-day. As regards fiction, which forms the greater part of it, the authors themselves are, as a rule, submerged more or less completely in the ideas of orthodoxy, just as are their readers. The fact that an individual has had a somewhat wider range of experience than the average, and has the ability to “write,” by no means assures emancipation from orthodox conceptions.

While it is true that the general views of the “intellectuals” are usually better defined, more logical, and partake more of the character of a “system” than do those of the “crowd,” yet the fact remains that they also accept, in the main, the same fundamental premises on which to base their reasoning, and it is these premises, which have to be discarded before the intellectual superstructure itself becomes unorthodox.

Then there is the professional scientific writer. As a rule he is a specialist, and regarding that which lies outside his own special province, his views differ in no important particular from those of his non-scientific fellows.

To those who realise the light which modern scientific progress has thrown up n theological conceptions, and intellect upon religious thought in general, it is highly amusing to see the manner in which “our great exponents of science,” especially in their popular works, dexterously squirm around, gingerly and tenderly handle the obsolete and barren ideas which the implications of their science have in reality long since exploded, in a vain endeavour to reconcile or ignore the bitter antagonism between the methods and conclusions of science and religion.

Of course, there are exceptions ; but even the exceptional ones in the ranks of the “men of science” pull up with a jerk when they have laid low the “ogre” of theological dogma, never venturing to tackle those other social and politico-economic superstitions which, as we have previously seen, are vital to the ruling-class ascendency. On the contrary, more often than not they enter the lists in favour of these same superstitions, indeed, sometimes using the leverage of their scientific eminence in an advocacy of existing ideas and institutions, rivalling in vigour the most blatant, job-hunting, bourgeois politician. Whether this attitude is the genuine outcome of a sincere belief or of a desire to propitiate those who control their jobs—the bourgeoisie—or arises from their own material interests in the system, is a matter for speculation, and doubtless differs in individual cases. Certain it is, however, that the pressure of class interest is felt, and it is made manifest when a too indiscreet savant is gracefully given his discharge from official duties. Perhaps the best position is that which gives them the benefit of the doubt by asserting that only those “survive” who have a “variation” in the shape of a predisposition favourable to capitalist society, thus giving an appearance of design to what is really only the selection of the best adapted.

Those “intellectuals” whose special province it is to build up within the shell of orthodoxy a system of so-called social science—the professional “sociologists” and “economists”—have had their systems so painfully riddled by the heartless criticisms of the unorthodox students of society that apparently nothing remains for them but a barefaced hypocrisy or to give up the game of masquerading as social analysts. In which latter case the unfortunate bourgeoisie would lose their valuable services as apologists for their pet ideas and for the system which keeps them. But without a doubt the former alternative will survive, there being no lack at any time of mental prostitutes who will sell their brains for the “good things” which such a course always attracts.

Allied to the above are the orthodox “historians.” Their works as a rule are little more than extended and elaborately detailed versions of the stuff served up as history in the schools and which we have already dealt with. The criticisms we made of the school “histories” may be applied almost unchanged to their bigger and more pretentious brethren. Still, hostile criticism has not been without some effect, for considerable improvement in method is noticeable with a few writers on historical subjects, who now pay greater attention to the material conditions of human livelihood and social progress. Nevertheless, the bulk of the ever-increasing supposedly historical works now issued, especially of those addressed to the “multitude,” still follows along the same old lines and therefore serve as a further prop to the ruling class by giving aid to the servile conceptions of orthodoxy.

On every hand, then, not only tke worker, but to a greater or less degree all the inhabitants of capitalist societies are surrounded by influences which tend to keep their minds working along certain relatively definite grooves. Practically every person with whom each member of the community comes into contact, and nearly all that he or she reads, expresses fundamentally the same opinions.

Apart from the superficial trimmings which embellish them, and which themselves are far more variable and spasmodic, these mental fetters, the selected and culminating products of of centuries class rule and priestcraft, buttressed all the powers of tradition and political authority, have become so apparently ingrained in the social mind that they are sometimes even held to be instinctive. Thus we hear patriotism spoken of as a natural instinct. We, however, have seen in our summary survey that the orthodox beliefs of to-day exist, not from any biological peculiarity of the human frame, but because of social conditions and social needs.

While it is true that some of these conceptions may have had their original roots in conditions quite other than those which obtain to-day, arising spontaneously and inevitably without artificial and designing encouragement, it is none the less true that to-day they persist largely by reason of this kind of stimulation. It was so with the conception of patriotism, which arose when the interests of each in the community really coincided largely with the interests of all—in the primeval days before the domineering ascendency of private property. But now, when, class distinctions prevail, when the interests of one class are only served by the sacrifice of another, social unity has become a mockery and patriotism functions only to conserve the mastery of the dominant class and to advance its interests.

Likewise with religion, which was at first a mentally useful and inevitable explanation of that which was, to the mind of primitive man, mysterious in the order of nature, thus filling in the theoretical blank which would have existed in its absence. With the rise, however, of the scientific method of enquiry, religion was in ever-widening circles of thought deprived of its intellectual necessity, and was preserved only because of another and political function to which it had in the meantime become adapted, that of serving the exploiters of labour by keeping the “masses” ignorant and humble, and possessed of a reverent awe—such a factor in forming that supreme ideal of those who rule, the servile “beast of labour.”


Leave a Reply