Society and Morals Part X.

Part X. —Morals and Socialism.


The relation of ethics to Socialism may be considered under two main aspects which correspond with the two-fold nature of Socialist activity; on the one hand its character as a comprehensive theory of social evolution, and, on the other, its practical aspect as a working class revolutionary movement. In other words, we have to consider the place occupied in the Marxian theoretic system by morals in general, and also the nature of the moral obligations, imposed upon Socialists, by their revolutionary principles.


The Materialist Conception of Ethics.


We have already, in the course of these essays, outlined the Socialist theory of the evolution of morals. Little further, therefore, on this head need be said here. Nevertheless, it is desirable to emphasise again the distinction which exists between the Socialist and the orthodox conceptions of morality.


In this historical sketch we have considered principally those ethical ideas which were really observed and those which sanctioned the social conditions existing and the modes of conduct actually practised by masses of men in each social epoch. This method of treating the subject, however, does not suit those whose view of history is idealistic. To them morality is the cause, not the result, of social conditions. This position is very common indeed. The Socialist is, for instance, frequently informed that, to achieve his aim, he must first “moralise the people,” make them all “loving brothers,” and so on. Very often, indeed, he is told that the Socialist aim is impossible because such “moral perfection,” as it presupposes, is incompatible with human nature. In this way also has arisen the absurd misconception that Socialism is a scheme for reforming the morality of individuals in the direction of altruism, with a view to establishing a perfect system of society. Most of the so-called “Christian” Socialists take up this attitude, and by so doing proclaim themselves in reality anti-Socialists.


The generally accepted non-scientific conception of morality and immorality regards these as not in any direct way connected with social utility or material interests, but simply as the conforming to or deviation of conduct from certain “principles” which are independent of forms of society, common to all periods of history; of universal application and unalterable. Briefly, morality is considered not as a relative thing dependent upon certain temporary conditions, but as something absolute and eternal. “Truth,” “Liberty,” “Brotherhood”‘ and “Justice” are some of the abstract principles in question.


A study of history, however, demonstrates that, although several of these conceptions are themselves very persistent and of great antiquity, the actual concrete expression of them, the real meaning attached to the terms has varied according to the changes in social needs. Thus, amongst the rudest barbarians, “brotherhood” has a very real significance, but one vastly different, in many respects, from its modern meaning. It denoted loyalty to the tribe (a very small community judged by modern standards), reverence for the tribal gods and ancestors, as well as strict observance of the customs of the tribe, both social and religious. Its practice, moreover, entailed antagonism, and often absolute ferocity, towards those outside the community.


So with the bourgeois conception of “freedom” which, on its positive side, meant freedom of production, of trade, of emigration, of property rights and of exploitation, and on its negative, the abolition of patriarchal and feudal ties and obligations.


Owing to his conviction, based upon an understanding of social evolution, that moral systems are generated by, and can only be explained in relation to, social institutions, the Socialist cannot agree with those “advanced ethicists” who, accepting a standard of so-called ”humanitarian” ethics, condemn all things, past and present, which cause or have caused pain or misery. These people ignore the findings of biologic and social science. To condemn cannibalism, torture, robbery, slavery, war, et off-hand without regard for the conditions which gave rise to them is, the Socialist sees, as foolish it is futile. These practices have all been inevitable and relatively useful in their time and place, and so long as these conditions were maintained they were moral. They gradually came to be regard as immoral only after the circumstances which necessitated them had passed away and such habits had become inadapted to the ways of living and institutions newly evolved.


Morality and Revolutions.


Although it is true that conceptions of justice and injustice, good and evil, have never formed the basis of revolutions, which is always to be found that external world from which the ideas underlying revolutionary activity are mainly drawn, yet moral notions have certainly been powerful factors in the concentration of that class power which enacted the fiat of economic development. While the time, place and character of the revolutionary current was always determined by objective economic conditions, it was through the effect of these conditions upon the perceptions of men, rousing the emotion impulses which promoted them to action that the social revolution was transferred from the potential to the actual.


But in the past, revolutionary convictions have at the best been based upon only a superficial knowledge of economic circumstances and the social requirements. Consequently much energy was wasted and its efficiency impaired by hopeless strivings after ideals which were impossible of realization. Over-reaching the practicable the movements were rudely checked and dragged back by the hard facts of economic reality.


The Socialist movement, however, lives in the “age of Science,” and, to this extent, has an enormous advantage over its predecessors. Firstly, the Socialist movement must be disciplined by sound knowledge; given this, the greater the feeling put into it the better; in the absence of scientific principles, however, the success of the movement will be gravely imperilled. Nevertheless, it is certain that the power of the movement and, therefore, its capacity to attain its end, will in large measure be determined by the degree to which it develops among its adherents a consistent moral code, based upon Marxian principles, and into which is infused those powerful impulses—the social instincts.


The Practice of Social Morality.


It will be evident from what has been said before that the Socialist’s opposition to the bourgeois and the capitalistic system for which they stand, by no means springs simply from a recognition of the misery, slavery and degradation which capitalism entails, though being human and not mere automata of logic, Socialists are naturally strongly influenced by such facts. They know, however, that capitalism has been a necessary and useful stage in the evolution of human society. It is because the system is neither of these to-day, because it can be shown that the functioning of wealth as capital is now a hindrance to economic and therefore social and intellectual progress, that the Socialist regards capitalism as an obsolete and evil institution.


If the Socialist holds exploitation and class oppression to be morally wrong, it is because, for the first time in history since the formation of class divisions away in the remote past, the material means are now available wherewith these, together with all their consequences, may be eliminated from human institutions. It is because this latest existing phase of class society, capitalism, is the great obstacle, holding mankind back, so to speak, on the very threshold of a new and splendid era manifesting untold developments in the material, social and mental triumphs of the race, that the Socialist holds this system and all the agencies which uphold or tend to perpetuate it, in hatred and abomination. The Socialist guides his own conduct according to this principle, abstaining from all actions, except such as are unavoidable, which in any way support the capitalist system, and he judges the behaviour fellow Socialists by the same standard.


But, above almost all else, the Socialist ethic is proletarian. The welfare of the working-class is the concern of every Socialist—their interests are his interests. Every effort of the workers to resist the predatory profit-hunger of the capitalists, and their strivings towards greater economic security, has his sympathy and support. For all that, the Socialist does not fail to criticise the ideas, organisations and activities of his class whenever he considers it necessary, for he sees that only too often these are based upon bourgeois conceptions, and betray an almost complete ignorance of social science, the structure of capitalism, and the facts the class-struggle.


This ignorance of the bulk of the workers regarding social matters is the greatest barrier in the way of their emancipation, and to assist in its dissipation the Socialist considers his first and most important duty. Among the workers be strives to undermine those bourgeois ”virtues” humility and reverence for constituted authority and tradition—by preaching self-assertion, independence of thought, and irreverence for tradition and the “powers that be.” He sees the paralysing effect of apathetic contentment upon the minds of the proletarians, and endeavours to instil among them that slave virtue, discontent — discontent with slavery, with exploitation, and with poverty, with every social evil it can be proved possible to abolish. Against the beguiling ethic of “universal goodwill” and “brotherhood,” the Socialist urges upon the working-class, suspicion, opposition, and hatred for their inveterate enemies the capitalist-class.


Incessant educational work, spreading amongst workers a knowledge of social development and the economic basis of capitalism, is the pressing need of the moment. This work of agitation the Socialist regards as an imperative duty. It is, moreover, his duty to make himself a fit propagandist. His code of morals embodies and insists upon the necessity of study and self-education, wherever possible. A Socialist who neglects to do this is hardly worthy of the name.

R. W. Housley


(To be Continued.)