Phaëton: Fragment of a Conversation.

You Socialists (said the Apologist for the Present Social Order) make the mistake of thinking that capitalism is evil in itself.

Nothing (said the Socialist) is evil in itself. It is in our judgment only that things appear as good or evil. Hamlet’s “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” is sound philosophy. Capitalism is therefore good in some men’s eyes, evil in others ; and it is in the nature of things that it chiefly seems good to those who benefit by it—the masters, and evil mainly to those who suffer by it—the workers.

But it is not a philosophical point that I wish to make (explained the A. for the P.S.O.). I wish to suggest that what you and I as workers regard as evils are the fruit of human failings, which would give a similar crop of evils under any other system.

The truth (replied the Socialist) is precisely the reverse. Within capitalist society, let men be never so desirous of harmony, they cannot but collide in the process of producing wealth ; in the socialist commonwealth, let a minority be ever so rapacious, it has not the means to enslave the majority as now. This is not to say, however, that the socialist pronounces capitalism purely evil. On the contrary, he holds that each succeeding organisation of society was necessary to the development of man’s power over Nature—capitalism among the rest. From the point of view of human progress it is therefore good, until it has served its purpose, and becomes a chain instead of a means of advance.

That time has now arrived.

The old Greeks had a story of Phaëton, son of Phoebus. He would drive the chariot of the sun, which daily moved across the firmament and shed blessed beams upon the world. But the eager steeds disdained his control; and the unguided car, sweeping too near the earth, blasted the life it was designed to nourish.

Economic teams have their Phaëtons too.

The continuous improvement in methods of production extracts an ever-richer return from human labour : makes highly productive even the labour of the weak and unskilled : makes possible that mass production which might minister to the sustenance, the culture, the leisure of mankind. But these forces capitalism, though it has fostered, cannot fitly employ, because it is ultimately concerned not with satisfying human needs, but with selling for profit. So they operate to create surfeit on one hand, emptiness on the other, and run to huge surpluses which compel spasmodic interruptions of work Like the radiant, mythical horses they plunge and strive. Misery and death are in their track, where life and joy should be.

Socialism will harness them better.


(Socialist Standard, June 1922)

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