Society and Morals. Part IX — Socialism, its Economic and Theoretical Basis

The Socialist movement is revolutionary ; its object is the establishment of society upon a new basis—that of common ownership by the members of society, of the land and the machinery necessary for production and distribution. The movement seeks, by this means, to solve what it considers the otherwise unsolvable problems raised by the prevailing capitalist society, such problems as, to take that most obvious to everyone, the existence of widespread poverty and drudgery side by side with the most prodigiously efficient means ever known of creating every kind of wealth. The abolition of war, also, is a problem to-day more keenly felt than ever before, which Socialists declare can and will be solved only by the abolition of capitalism and the organisation of that Socialist Commonwealth which is their supreme objective.

The Sociology of Revolutions.

In this series of essays we have had occasion to notice some of the social revolutions of the past. The revolutionary movements of previous ages also undertook to solve the social problems of their time. Such problems and the necessity for social re-organisation arises when the established institutions cease to conform with the actual economic relations of men, forced on them by the industrial conditions obtaining ; when the existing organisation of society hinders rather than facilitates the development of the sorces of production.

Mechanical inventions and technical improvements step by step effect changes in the methods of industry, but social institutions tend to linger on and to outlive their usefulness because of men’s reverence for traditions and attachment to custom and convention. Only when the insufficiency of these institutions to meet the newly arisen needs becomes glaring and obvious is social re-adjustment more or less rapidly brought about. But in class-divided communities a potent artificial factor intervenes to retard this necessary social progress, and that is—the self interest of the class which the established order elevates to prominence and maintains in wealth and power.

Under the conservative and reactionary influence of ruling-class activity social contradictions have frequently become chronic and disastrous. When such a condition is reached this class which dominates society and receives the richest share of the wealth produced becomes parasitic by losing every vestige of social function. Conversely, the remainder of the community are afflicted with unnecessary burdens, restrictions, and privations, while society itself is threatened with collapse.

But if class-interest be often a powerful conservative agent it has also been the most virulent incentive in the cause of revolution and progress. Whenever a class existed who for any reason felt the ill effects of the obsolete system, with extreme severity, a class who, for instance, were conscious that their interests were or could be especially administered to by those very industrial forces which were denied expansion, this class became the chief advocate of revolution and played the part of leader and guide to the revolutionary movement.

Thus it was with that series of revolutions which removed the legal restrictions upon the liberty of industry and trade, imposed by the out-worn semi-feudal absolutism, and released for seemingly unbounded expansion the economic forces behind capitalism. These were the work primarily of the capitalist classes themselves, inflamed with revolutionary zeal by the oppressive conditions which so injuriously affected their interests. On the other hand, however, the landed-nobility-well-favoured parasites of the old regime were bitter opponents of, and strove to frustrate the aims of, the bourgeoisie. In this they were typical of all ruling classes, for as indicated above, history shows that every such class has clung to its power and privilege until compelled to abdicate, and never voluntarily assisted any move in social progress which menaced its sovereignty. Moreover, the dominant class of every epoch has never lacked arguments in justification of the position and of their system of exploitation which maintained them in it. Consequently they were ever incapable of being “moralised” into an unresisting acceptance of revolution. It is important to bear this in mind, for it shows how dangerously misleading is the work of those would-be “reformers” who declare their belief in an universally acceptable morality—a point we shall dwell upon later.

Ruling classes, however, have never relied solely on moral justification to safeguard their interests. On the contrary they were always prepared to use the most violent means or take the most extreme, ferocious action against a revolt of the “lower” oppressed classes, whether this was consciously revolutionary or not. Because exploitation and class oppression have underlain all the various forms of social civilisation, class friction and conflict pervades every page of its history. The ruthlessness of these struggles is revealed whether examples be taken from the slave risings of Antiquity, the serf and peasant revolts of the Middle Ages, or from the records of existing bourgeois society. The Paris Commune of 1871 will ever remain a tragic and significant instance of the modern phase of that ages-old war of class against class, oppressors against oppressed.

Utopia or Science.

Many men, often of great genius and learning, have in different ages elaborated schemes of social regeneration, plans to re-organise society upon a “better” basis. Among them may be ranked Plato in ancient Greece, More in mediaeval England, and later St. Simon, Fourier, Godwin, Owen, Compte and Proudhon. Their ideals were, however, never realised, for they all failed to see that every society is an evolutionary product determined by preceeding conditions, and in turn determining what is to follow. They did not recognise economic conditions to be the main foundation of society nor yet in many cases the irreconcilable antagonism between the interests of the existing classes or the effect this had upon their moral opinions.

True, in some cases, the ideas of men of this type, Rousseau, for instance, did assist in bringing about a social transformation, but only when it happened that the conditions for such had been prepared by economic developments and when a class already existed whose needs urged them on to revolutionary ambitions. But even where a social change was thus actually realised the new form of society never corresponded with that depicted by the imagination of such idealistic thinkers ; it was always moulded in accordance with those social needs, impressed upon the revolutionary class in the form of economic interests, and which were determined in the last analysis by the stage reached in industrial development.

In its every phase the modern Socialist movement differs from the Utopianism of the great social idealists, and of their puny, latter-day disciples, the sentimental reformists.

It was, indeed, the founders and pioneer exponents of the Socialist theory, Marx and Engels, who first showed, over seventy years ago, that economic evolution is the mainspring of social and ideological history. Since their time many non-Socialist historians and sociologists have been compelled to recognise the mode of production as the chief determining factor in social growth, and to Lewis H. Morgan, the famous patheologist, belongs the distinction of reaching independently this epoch-making conception. Every advance in historical and sociological research has repeatedly demonstrated the profound truth of the Marxian conception of society, and therefore, because the Socialist movement stands alone in its consistent adherence to this, its guiding principle, it may fairly claim to be in truth a scientific movement, the first to consciously apply social science to social revolution.

The Contradictions of Capitalism.

Aided by their materialist conception of history, Marx and Engels examined in detail the economic structure of capitalist society, how it had evolved and to what it was tending. Resulting from their politico-economic study was the demonstration that capitalistic production which had hastened the break-up, and emerged triumphantly above the wreckage of the feudal system, was now itself generating with its development economic and social complications which it was evident would ensure its eventual downfall.

We have already sketched out the salient features of capitalism ss revealed by the Marxian analysis, and have also shown some of the colossal problems which the system as it matures rises for solution. The most striking and important are those which we saw lay at the root of modern imperialism.

How to dispose of an ever-growing volume of commodities in a manner profitable to their class is as we have seen, a problem which the capitalists of the world are compelled to face. To-day the attempt at solution results in war on a gigantic scale, bringing devastation and suffering and death to countless millions. In the future this difficulty bids fair to become, with intensified productivity and closing markets, insuperable. Capitalist production and commerce demand war, but production itself is now an international process, and wars, by obstructing commercial intercourse and free access to the world’s markets, threaten capitalist society with collapse, and by blocking the supplies of raw materials, cut at the very foundation of production itself. They thus constitute a terrible menace to social life itself, now that the whole world is one vast workshop. Imperialism is the path which the bourgeoisie are enforced to follow in recognition of the economic fact that modern history has outgrown the bounds of the national State, yet in their attempt to solve the problem they have to ferment a degree of national hate and antagonism never known before.

Allied to the above is the anomaly of over-production, for when, as frequently happens, the available markets are unable to absorb the whole of the vast surplus of commodities, a commercial glut occurs, warehouses remain stocked, factories slacken off or close down and the workers thrown out of employment are faced with starvation because, incredible as it may seem, they have produced too abundantly. Again, the use of more efficient machinery (in order to cheapen production), which, appropriately used, could both lighten the labour of the producers and greatly add to their comfort and wealth, under capitalism promotes unemployment, intensifies the competition for work, and augments both the toil and the poverty of the workers.

Under capitalism, let it be repeated, while the powers of production are greater and the wealth actually created vaster and more so every year, than under any previous system, being easily capable of supplying the whole population with every need and comfort, the great army of workers who use these powers to produce this wealth live in a condition of perpetual poverty and drudgery, and are thus isolated from most of tho real fruits which the science, art, and technical achievments of civilisation have to offer. And when in addition to this it is realised that competent social investigators declare existing economic conditions to be at the root of such evils as child-mortality, prostitution, crime, and a host of pernicious maladies like consumption, the striking force of the indictment which Socialists bring against capitalism will be forced home.


(To be Continued.)

(July 1918)

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