1920s >> 1922 >> no-215-july-1922
Some Shoddy Thoughts of a Superficial Mind
It is G. K. Chesterton’s opinion that Mr. A. J. Penty is “one of the two or three truly original minds of the modern world.” When therefore Penty applies himself to criticism of Marx one expects something brilliant. It turns out however to be as shallow as any of the stuff written by numbers of critics who make no claim to genius, and the original mind appears to be just like an ordinary one.
Writing on “Christian Communists” in the “Crusader” (26 May, 1922) he begins well with the confident assertion that “there is nothing in common between the Communism of Christianity and the Communism of Marx but a name which conceals differences that are fundamental.” This is a refreshing change from the attitude of the discontented religionists who “sympathise with the Labour movement ” on the one hand, and from the fogginess of the half-converted Communists on the other. The former fancy they see in the working class movement a blind groping heavenwards, and encourage the view, very useful to the capitalist class, that a little more soulfulness and a little less grasping after material things will right all wrongs, and incidentally make the movement fit for Christians to live on.
Just as the churches are learning that it does not pay to drive away its congregation by too forcible opposition to trade unionism, and safe enough to give benediction to sane Labour Leaders, so also may self-styled Communists recognise the advisability of turning a blind eye on the implications of “their own teaching when applied to religious superstitions. Thus we have the “Workers Dreadnought” (4th June, 1921) agreeing with the Rev. Conrad Noel that the true interpretation of “the teaching of the Nazarene is Communism ” and that Christ, if he really did exist, “was a Communist without doubt.” Again, Francis Meynell, as Editor of the “Communist,” while admitting in a letter to an enquirer (2nd June, 1921) that the “ materialist conception of History . . . cannot be reconciled with any form of supernatural belief” had to excuse the unsound and illogical attitude of the Communist Party with the evasive remark that the logical proletarian “is even more rare than a white blackbird”; the specious apology of every purveyor of quack nostrums. If the public doesn’t know and doesn’t like what is good then give them what they like even though it is bad. If the workers don’t like the correct attitude toward religion, suppress it; if they don’t like Communism give them something else. In what other way can a “mass” party be built up?
But although Penty recognises the impossibility of reconciling Christianity with Marxism, he soon shows that his knowledge of the latter is hardly sufficient to support the emphatic opinion he expresses.
He says of Marxians that “in practice, as the Bolshevik regime demonstrated, they are Industrial Conscriptionists; for there is no avoiding the conclusion that Marxism leads as inevitably to the servile state as Fabianism.” He assumes that his conclusion is so obvious as not to need proof: but is it? If the Bolsheviks made the mistake of thinking that Russian conditions would permit the establishment of Socialism, does this make Marxists responsible for policies imposed on the Bolsheviks by economic necessity? If the Bolshevik Government, acting at the outset with insufficient knowledge of the world situation, were compelled by the failure of their hopes and the critical position in which they found themselves to adopt emergency measures, does this make Marxists Industrial Conscriptionists?
To hold Marxists responsible for the Russian Government’s actions is absurd: the Bolsheviks themselves are hardly responsible. They are only taking Hobson’s choice.
Penty goes on in similar strain to accuse Marxists of objecting not to capitalism but to the “private ownership” of capital. For proof he refers to, but does not quote, Lenin’s speeches. That Marx advocated state ownership is untrue and the suggestion from one who could so easily find out what he did advocate somewhat childish. It is doubtful too, whether Penty could produce evidence from Lenin’s speeches. That Lenin states as a fact that Russia cannot escape the capitalist stage of development is not a sufficient reason for the assumption that he desires nothing else.
It may be said in his defence by those who have high opinions of Mr. Penty that the “original mind” does not have to trouble about evidence for charges made, but those who don’t know Mr. Penty will only notice that this particular controversial trick is played by so many ordinary people—dishonest people.
I would certainly like to know one thing from Mr. Penty: that is, from what source he learned that Marx “did not propose to abolish capitalism but to superimpose communism over it.”
Mr. Penty evidently extends his originality to his use of the King’s English, for we are told that Marxians “do not quarrel with modernism as a conception of life, but only with the fact that it is limited to the few.” I can only speak for myself but I cannot imagine Marxists quarreling with anybody because “Modernism as a conception of life ” is “limited to the few.” I don’t know what it means but I should be prepared to take the risk and let the few keep it and wish them jolly good luck as well.
Mr. Penty next tells us that Marxians quarrel with the implications of materialism, but not with materialism itself. He omits however to say what the implications are and again leaves me in the dark as to his meaning.
He attempts to state the Marxian theory of social revolution and succeeds well enough while closely following the original, but once he leaves the book and begins to comment, his failure to understand becomes apparent.
He says that “if the forms of social organisation were nothing more than the reflex action of the forces of production, then the millenium ought to arrive by an automatic process without any conscious effort on the part of man.” I don’t know how “the forms of social organisation” can be the “reflex action” of anything, but assuming Mr. Penty meant something else, I am at a loss to understand where he obtained this notion of Marxism. He then pretends that this difficulty of his own creation was likewise discovered by Marx. “But Marx felt instinctively that such could not be the case.” This is another quite common trick..
Penty foists on Marx something he did not say and then argues that because Marx really did say something different that he was either contradicting himself or had changed his mind.
Now having initially misrepresented Marx and started him out on a course which has existence only in Penty’s fertile brain, this has somehow or other to be sustained.
He pretends that Marx had to find some driving force, and having cut out love, “he was driven to make use of the power of hatred. Hence the advocacy of the Class War by which he hoped to generate a force capable of overthrowing the existing order of society.”
This is sheer nonsense. Marx did not and Marxists do not “advocate class war.” Marx from a careful study of the capitalist organisation of society made certain generalisations as to its structure and the lines of its growth and decay. He gave the explanation of its origin and of its position in the chain of social systems, and it is the aim of Marxists to spread this knowledge among the workers in order that it may be the means of hastening the overthrow of capitalist domination. Foremost in this is the recognition of the fact that capitalist society takes its form from the fundamental division into the owners of the means of production, and the wage earners who work but do not own. The Socialist no more advocates class war than does a doctor spread disease who asks that its existence shall be recognised and its nature studied as a prelude to its removal. While disease, physical and mental, was regarded as a punishment for sins, no headway could be expected in the treatment of lunacy or epidemics; while the criminal is regarded as a conscious and deliberate enemy of society instead of a product of the system no headway will be made in the removal of crime. While the class nature of capitalism is unrecognised by the workers, its abolition cannot be hoped for.
Those who endeavour to gain recognition for the fact that class struggle exists, are accused by Penty of fermenting hatred just as those who urged the development of medical and sanitary sciencies were accused of encouraging immorality, and those who urged the study of criminology, of fostering crime.
Those who have knowledge of the structure of capitalism based as it is on exploitation, and of the possibility of its replacement by a society in which class divisions shall no longer hamper the use by all of the natural resources and the highly developed means of wealth production, have no need of hatred as a motive force. Knowledge is a much more potent weapon in the hands of the organised working class.
Since therefore Marx did not advocate class war and did not expect that he through class hatred would generate a force capable of “overthrowing the existing social order” (by the way Mr. Penty has just told us that Marx did not aim at overthrowing capitalism) it is hard to see how Marxians could be disappointed because “it does not work out as expected.” Again, “working class solidarity ” has never been a reality and could not therefore, owing to the alleged instruction of the workers in suspicion have become a “myth.”
It would finally be interesting to know the identity of the “middle class socialists” who, through suspicion of their genuineness, have been lost to the working class movement to the latter’s detriment. I know of none. I have heard of people who have made the workers stepping stones to their own advancement, and then to conceal their own meanness when they deserted those who had provided means to their ascent, had to make pretence of being martyrs to suspicion. Penty may mean these, but their value is open to doubt anyway. Their contempt for the workers appears to have been developed more or less consciously, but Penty’s judging by the careless and misleading views he gives to his Crusader readers seems to be real; doubtless another attribute of the original mind.
In view of Penty’s rather miserable show it would be helpful if G. K. Chesterton would give us the identity of the third original mind so that we may know his calibre too.
Chesterton we know. He finds his vocation in writing excellent drinking songs; Penty, with his fine vein of imagination, and his lofty disregard for mere commonplace accuracy should transfer his talent to new fields. He might try Romantic Ballads on other historical figures, preferably those legendary ones about whom no awkward records exist. Anyway he might leave Marx alone.