The Age of Discontent
In an age such as ours, in an age, that is, which is the necessary preliminary (long or short) of a drastic social change, there must inevitably be a distinct and increasing tendency for people to adopt a critical, to a large extent a negative, attitude towards all social institutions and activities. No matter in what sphere of life one may move, it will be found that the evils of Capitalism, no longer hidden, but becoming more and more glaringly insistent, are the theme for attack even amongst the most superficially-minded people. Among members of the working-class, of all descriptions, whether they be manual workers, on managerial and clerical staffs, civil and domestic servants, housewives, writers, artists, and scientists, is to be found a sense of dissatisfaction, more or less articulate, with things as they are.
To-day, the commercial manager, himself usually as much a member of the working-class as his youngest errand-boy, has lost the sense of security he had a comparatively few years ago, when his position was almost considered a sinecure, and now looks with something like terror towards the results that will be shown on his prospective yearly balance-sheet. The clerks under him murmur in their usual semi-fearful way at the high cost of living and their decreasing salaries. Domestic servants are beginning to see something degrading in their flunkeyism. Every grade of manual worker is seething with discontent. Writers, from the hack-journalist to the novelist and poet, artists, scientific men, are beginning to realise that the work they are allowed to do in the world is branded by its usefulness to their capitalist employers; and some of them, at any rate, see nothing in their expression of their art and scientific knowledge except a prostitution to the necessity for earning a livelihood. In the most unlikely quarters and from the most unusual sources, arises a cry of discontent, of bitterness, of despair. Most of the plays worth taking into consideration nowadays voice a feeling of rebellion against existing institutions.
The lighter entertainments are satires on the vices and foibles of certain sections of society. Novelists and poets in their writings portray characters and characteristics nauseating to the ordinary normal man and woman, contending, with a good deal of truth, that in so doing they are only expressing the tendencies of the age. In scientific papers, scientific men can be found deploring the bodily, mental, and what they call “moral” degeneration of the people both in the upper and lower strata of society, and advocating in a half-hearted and unconvincing manner reforms for the betterment of the race. Publishers and theatrical managers nowadays find that the books and plays that pay best are those that attack some phase or other of modern society. With their usual opportunism and eye to business, they give the public what it seems to want, and what it seems to want at the present time is an articulate expression of its inarticulate acute discontent. There is, say, a reaction against war, and you have staged a play such as the “Trojan Women”; or a reaction against the tyranny and brutality of power or riches, and you get a play such as “The Cenci,” or a novel such as Beresford’s “Prisoners of Hartling”; or the orgies of a certain section of high society become a little too notorious, and you get the novels of a Stephen McKenna or a Compton Mackenzie.
What, it may be asked, has this to do with Socialism. It seems that these people are, in a feeble and unscientific way, following the lead of the Socialist when he criticises and condemns, scientifically and in the light of his Socialist knowledge, Capitalism and all its numerous and intricate ramifications. Unlike the non-Socialist, the Socialist has looked below the surface, has probed deep into the very entrails of modern capitalist society, and has found that the evils, which have now become too glaring to be ignored by anyone possessing the least grain of intelligence, are the outcome of our present social system. The degeneracy of mind and body, the misery of striving to keep up appearances without adequate means to support such appearances, the vicious and abnormal tendencies prevalent amongst all sections of people, the excessive amount of unemployment, and its consequences of poverty and degradation, the prostitution of a man’s knowledge and ability and of a woman’s body, have their present source in the capitalist system of production for profit, or production of wealth to benefit a small minority, leaving out of account the vast majority of the populace.
As the ills and misfortunes from which the working-class suffer become less possible, and at last impossible, of being hidden away, as they grow less susceptible to the “dope” and narcotics emanating from the Press, the pulpit and the platform, the expressions of discontent and rebellion— always lying dormant in a social system such as the present one—increase in volume and intensity. But, apart from the Socialist, none of these people, whether writer or artist, scientist or “ man-in-the- street,” however loudly he may voice his dissatisfaction with things as they are, has either the courage or the ability to put forward a constructive policy to take effect when Capitalism falls.
The non-Socialists see certain evils in the world, evils which grow more glaring as the years pass, and all they can do is to say in effect, “Let us destroy these abominable evils, and if, in doing so, we, at the same time destroy associations of peoples, even if we thereby wipe out mankind itself; better chaos or annihilation, than the degradation and prostitution of life as it is to-day.” The Socialist, however, has no desire for social chaos or atavism, or total annihilation; these visions of despair would drift into nothingness if people could only be brought to understand—to understand themselves and the social system under which they live and which makes them the unhappy beings that they are. We are endeavouring to give to our non-Socialist fellow-workers an exposition of life as it now is, as it might soon be, and as eventually it will be. What we. desire is a sane and healthy system of society, to be erected on the dead ashes of the system which is passing, wherein no man shall be called upon to sacrifice his ability and no woman her body in order to obtain the wherewithal to live; wherein the workman, the artist, the scientist (possibly a trinity in one person) may unite with, and dovetail into, one another, in the production of wealth, which would be the property of an appreciative and enlightened humanity; not, as now, the property of a few unworthy and unappreciative parasites.
F. J. Webb