Revolutionary Ideas. Being the sequel to “Orthodoxy”

I. Unorthodox Ideas in General

Having in the previous essay considered in some detail the conditions which are instrumental in the building up and maintaining of system of orthodox thought, especially that of the age in which we live, let us consider the complementary circumstances which cause the undermining of such a system. In other words, let us turn in our survey from orthodoxy to its antagonist, unorthodoxy.

Just as “orthodoxy” is a general term covering a multitude of diverse ideas having in themselves little in common, though co-related by the fact of their popular acceptance, so the term “unorthodoxy” is applicable to all manner of beliefs and conceptions that are contrary to those that are generally held.

Doubtless a large proportion of these unorthodox views result, to some extent, from peculiarities in the personal temperaments of the individuals holding them, or possibly from their having had abnormal experiences, or maybe because of highly illogical reasoning. For it is perfectly obvious that the fact of being unorthodox is, in itself, no more a mark of truth in ideas than is being orthodox.

The orthodox view often is, indeed, the correct one, as is, for instance, the popular idea of the earth’s relation to the sun. But there was a time, let it be remembered, when the belief in the sun’s dominance and “our” planet’s circulation around it was considered a heresy worthy of torture, death, and damnation.

But it is not our intention to dwell here upon the unorthodox opinions of isolated individuals, whose views are either peculiar to themselves or at the most remain backed by an insignificant number of adherents. We wish rather to centre our attention upon the growth and spread to numbers of the community of anti-orthodox thought in general. In particular upon such systems of ideas as, having or developing numerous adherents, form well-defined groups or “schools of thought.”

Of the many classes of ideas comprising orthodoxy some are more lightly held to than others. The extent to which this applies is conditioned by several factors, but one of the most important is the relative value to the dominant class of the various ideas as a means of keeping “social order,” that is, maintaining their rule. The development of ideas under changing social conditions, regarding religion, is illuminating in this respect. In Antiquity, and through the Middle Ages in Europe when Feudal organisation was supreme, religion formed the primary means of reconciling the subjected classes to their condition, and consequently it was backed up by all the forces which the ruling class of the time could summon, and in fact it became a considerable political power in itself. Unbelief was not tolerated and “heresy-hunting” ran riot, giving rise to that monstrous organisation, the Inquisition. To this day the religious persecutions in Russia and other socially backward nations, and such occurances as the governmental murder of the Freethinker Ferrer in Spain so recently as 1909, remain as vestiges of activities that once prevailed all over Europe.

This political importance of religion, so often concealed, is well portrayed by that acute scientist and historian, J. W. Draper, in his “Intellectual Development of Europe,” where he wrote of the possibility of growing unbelief (Vol. I., p. 139) :

“. . . though, by the exercise of force on the part of the interests that are disturbed, . . . the crises might, for a time, be put off, it could not be otherwise than that Europe should be left in that deplorable state which must result when the intellect of a people has outgrown its formulas of faith. A fearful condition to contemplate, for such a dislocation must also affect political relations, and necessarily implies revolt against existing laws. Nations plunged in the abyss of irreligion must necessarily be nations in anarchy.”

But, as industry evolved and capitalism arose, taking on more and more its present form, capitalist enterprise and competition utilised natural science as an aid to production and commerce, a move which brought on the modern “machine age.” Scientific research was releived of the disabilities under which it had painfully worked, and thus was stimulated a scientific revival among the intellectuals. As the desire of the bourgeoisie for an industrially efficient working class ever increased the practice of reading became general, and scientific, literature voluminous, cheap, and popular. Although, aas we have before seen, most writers on science are very wary of damaging religious beliefs, yet they could not prevent those who read their books from drawing their own conclusions. Doubts as to the reality of the supernatural and miraculous spread with the study science which reveals no such phenomena—a development which was aided by the practical education in inexorability of cause and effect, and the controlability of natural forces, which was given by experience in the use of power-driven machinery,

Thus there exists an ever-growing unorthodoxy respecting religion, in all gradations ranging from a logical materialism to a vague philosophic theism, resulting, in the long run from the very satisfaction of the needs of the ruling class itself. Religion is, therefore, gradually losing its influence as an instrument of class rule, and the bourgeoisie is unable to stop its wane. In many capitalist countries State support has already been withdrawn from religious organisations, and the tendency is for this to increase. Religious belief is still orthodox and is still generally considered essential to “respectability,” but the expression of unbelief is far from being the perilous thing which it once was.

From amongst the intellectuals there has arisen a school with unorthodox views on religion but retaining bourgeois political and economic concepts. They believe and propagate the idea that supernatural religion is not only not helpful, but positively harmful and a fetter upon “our civilisation” (by which they really mean, capitalism). They have formed “secularist” or so-called rationalist societies. Recognising, however, what has been the social function of religion, they hasten to declare the teaching of non-theological ethics to be equally or even more efficacious in maintaining social “order.” By this time our readers will know what this means, and will draw their own conclusions as to the form of the ethics advocated.

But the bourgeoisie as a whole have not as yet taken altogether to the secularist idea, although it is growing on them. Many in their ranks who personally disbelieve in the current religious dogmas still hold them to be socially necessary. They therefore play the hypocrite, like the Pericles and Caesars of antiquity, by outwardly adhering to what they in reality regard as untrue. This is but occasionally admitted: Joseph McCabe in his “Religion of Sir Oliver Lodge” says (p. 169) : “Dr. St. George Mivart, in confessing to me, a few years before his death, that he regarded it as a sign of ignorance for any man to believe the doctrines of the Roman Church, to which he nominally belonged, excused his position on, the ground that it was necessary to combat ‘materialism.'”. Amongst the working class the declining social force of religion suggests itself in a widespread religious indifference, which crystallises into a decided antagonism to religion in proportion as the workers definitely realise their true interests.

We will confine now our attention to unorthodoxy in ideas regarding social relations, in that phase of thought which embraces conceptions of economic and political conditions, of patriotism, law, and morality. Here we are confronted by those very ideas upon which society largely depends for its continued existence in a given form. To this form of unorthodoxy, therefore, the dominant class is implacably opposed.

While it is true that the ruling ideas in a society concerning matters of social significance are always of such a nature as will tend to keep stable the society and preserve it from internal and external disruption, and that they uphold the interests of the ruling class, it must not be imagined that they are deliberately manufactured with this end in view. They are largely the legacy of past social development, built upon, and re-modelled as the interests which dictated them changed. The average member of a dominating class is firm in his belief that these ideas are true. His class environment, associations, and traditions are all favourable to this result. Here we come up against that curious phenomenon which has confounded so many philosophers, social and historical students—the manner in which ideas and actions which really are based upon and in line with material class interests are draped in fantastic ideal coverings and are given a moral justification which is actually taken to be their root cause instead of merely the superficial trimming.

The man of the ruling class sees that the condition of things obtaining is good for him and good for his class. He does not put this down to the impersonal cause of a condition of property relations growing from a historically developed method of living, giving wealth and position, with all that they command, to his own class, and withholding them from the subjected. His natural egotism, supplemented by the class tradition, suggests rather a personal cause to be found in the attributes of his class, such as “blue” blood, military prowess, and “divine right” in mediaeval times, and thrift, initiative, and directive ability in the present capitalist era. This gives rise to a contempt for the “lower” class—a contempt expressed either openly or in the thin disguise of a paternal superiority. There arises a fear of the growing power of the “lower orders”—an event which it is believed could only result in a social anarchy and chaos which would destroy all culture and civilisation. The social forms under which these alleged exceptional qualities are given full play are regarded not only as the most progressive and highest types, to which all others are inferior, but often as the only forma really reflecting “human nature,” which would therefore inevitably re-assert themselves even if temporally destroyed. Thus the ruling class regards itself as the guardian of all that is socially good and progressive, and is opposed to all attempts to change the structure of society.

The orthodox sociological ideas, then, are believed by those who accept them to explain the necessity for the social arrangements in vogue, and to justify them. Fundamentally unorthodox socio-economic views, therefore, are generally only held among those who do not accept the current explanations of the necessity, nor the justifications offered, for the social structure existing—that is, by those who are opposed to the society obtaining, who believe it can be changed and are desirous of changing it. In other words, if a certain system of anti-orthodox sociologic concepts are to be anything more than merely the intellectual property of an isolated thinker or an insignificant sect ; if they are to achieve outstanding prominence in the mental life of a community, they must be of such a nature as to draw support from some section of society who find their interests to lie, not in perpetuating the existing forms, but in the transformation of society. We find, looking back over the historic development of ideas, that whenever there arise and grow conceptions of society radically different from the traditionally prevailing ones, they represent the social aspirations of some oppressed class or classes, that they arise from, and are the more or less idealised reflections of, what these classes believe their real interests to be. The spread of such ideas is, therefore, a forerunner of every movement of revolt which consciously aims at altering the structure of society.

The continued stable existence of a condition of society having class antagonisms, and with these therefore the possibility of disruption, depends to a great extent upon the powerlessness of the subjected class or classes in the face of the rulers, due to their lack of sufficiently effective counter-organisation. This itself turns up two main factors : first, the non-recognition by the subjected classes of the source of their oppression, and of the antagonism of their interests to those of the ruling faction—in other words, upon the absence of class-consciousness. Secondly, upon the strength of the barriers—natural, technical, and social—in the way of effective organisation. Among the chattel-slaves of Antiquity class-consciousness was widespread, but organisation sufficient to cope with the concentrated military force of their oppressors, proved impossible of accomplishment. But to-day the conditions are reversed. The complexity of social relations and the powerful hold of capitalistic ideas are obstacles to a class-consciousness which, once the proletariat attain, the problem of their organisation vanishes.

The fact that human society has gone through a historical process, has taken on different forms in different periods, and that these changes usually flowed from internal and not external influences, is a proof that each and all of these several forms were grounded on an unstable basis. The distinction must be made, however, between the gradual, automatic and inevitable changes which transpire in the mode of living, of which the individuals and classes whose relations with one another are thereby altered, are mainly, at the time, unconscious, and the social changes which men have, in outline at least, planned out beforehand, consciously striven for. and accomplished when the opportunity arrived. The former changes result from the imperative, ever-present necessity of obtaining a livelihood, which gives rise to a gradual but accumulating progress in the productive capacity of labour through inventions and discoveries. While each step, every improvement, is made consciously with possibly a definite but immediate end in view, the ultimate changes wrought and their effects upon social relations are usually unlocked for, undesired, and therefore largely out of conscious control. The arrangements resulting from the domination of man by material things and processes are, therefore, outside the sphere wherein man is able to deliberately bring about changes to his liking. Man, in the exercise of this power on social relationships, is chiefly confined to those relations in the deliberate domination of man by man, that is, in the domain of government, in the manoeuvring of politics and the making of laws. Even here his will, seemingly free, is limited by the means at his disposal to accomplish his end, and is dictated by desires based upon the interests which arise oat of his conditions of life. Such changes, made usually in the form of legal enactments backed up by the organised physical forces of society, imply that the majority of the community are in their favour, or do not effectively oppose them.

From the above we are better able to understand the development of the new social ideas which we are investigating. When the material living conditions have so altered that the social arrangements maintained by law to the advantage of the dominant class are no longer those best adapted to furthering the evolution of the means and methods of producing wealth, they become hindrances to progress. Where a change is obviously imperative, and can be made without a balance of injury to their interests, leaving them still dominant, the ruling class may themselves effect it. But the limits to the changes possible within such bounds are soon reached.

The existing conditions become not only unprogressive, breeding stagnation, but there looms up the possibility of social dissolution. Invariably these dire consequences are more or less vaguely foreseen by the keener intellects, the Juvenals and Voltaires of the time, and their shafts of criticism and satire are flung at every institution of the existing order.

But were this all, social suicide might well become a reality. For unless some class, willing and capable, is at hand to wage conflict to the death with the traditional rulers of society and reconstruct the social organism on the lines prescribed by the stage reached in economic production, dissolution is practically inevitable. Thus Roman civilisation, with all its vaunted grandeur, was perishing of its own rottenness, and was only saved in part through the social and physical freshness of its barbarian invaders.

Usually, however, such a class does exist—a class whose interests lie in promoting the necessary social revolution, who become conscious of this and capable of carrying it out. The vague, aimless discontent found among all oppressed classes, fairly harmless to the rulers in itself, becomes concentrated into definite principles of thought and action in opposition to the existing order, and to the orthodox code. The more penetrating minds among those who champion the new principles, work out theoretical systems often ramifying into every sphere of human endeavour and the universe at large, becoming the “intellectual lights” of the movement. The class becomes revolutionary ; it develops its own code of ethics, beliefs, and ideals, which increase in definiteness and aggressiveness in proportion as the social system becomes more and more antiquated, and as its own opposition to the ruling class correspondingly grows.

The actual outward form in which conceptions born of revolt against existing society appear, depends to a great extent upon the character of the forces opposing the movement, and they are necessarily bounded by the limitations imposed upon intellectual expansion by the material and social conditions of the time. Thus practically every revolt against the status quo which broke out in the mediaeval epoch of Feudalism, whether of the oppressed serfs and peasants or of the discontented burghers of the towns, was tinged largely with religious principles, while at the same time expressing itself as antagonistic to the orthodoxy of the Roman Church. Social demands were expressed in terms of religious reform. The international Catholic Church was the most powerful bulwark of Feudal society, and was itself the greatest of exploiting thieves. Everywhere its power as a conservative agent was felt, and thus it became the point upon which the main attack of the revolting elements was focussed. But so deep was Christian superstition ingrained. in the minds of the time, and so weak was the condition of science—the only effective antagonist to religion—that even the most revolutionary ideas were draped in a religious guise. Here unorthodox social ideals involve a religious unorthodoxy, but in a form different from that which we have previously examined. To-day every “world problem” has been wrenched by science from the domain of the theologian, and science is the weapon of the true revolutionists of our time ; for superstition spells ignorance and ignorance reaction.

But whatever outward form the ideals and aspirations of the revolutionary class take, because of their progressive character they make their appeal to all who are interested in, and in favour of, social advancement, and on the other hand to those who have nothing to lose by a change in society, having had nothing but bitterness under the established form. Even individuals of the upper social layers, therefore, are infected by the new ideal. More important, however, is the fact that where lower social classes underlie the truly revolutionary class, the exaggerated transports of idealism for social welfare which is generated, together with their discontent, which is often artificially encouraged by the revolutionaries, serve to bring them along as eager—though ignorant and “led”—supporters of the movement, to provide the main dynamic force, if not the guiding factor of the impending revolution.

But in the past the working populace were not materially benefited by the social transformations which they helped to make, for the material conditions had not yet ripened to the point-where they would allow of the social circumstances being established, emancipating the working class from oppression.

(To be Continued.)


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