1920s >> 1923 >> no-225-may-1923

To a new reader

I have sometimes thought of compiling a little book. I should set about it thus : I would ask a great number of the people I met in a casual way what they understood Socialism to mean. The result would at least be interesting. Some would dispose of the matter in one word. “Bosh !” they would say—or “Rot !” These would be the foolish. Others would say : “Well, it means practical Christianity, or universal brotherhood, or some such idea.” These possibly would be well-meaning people, but, as you will see, misinformed. Some there would be who would tell a long rambling tale, that Socialism was a beautiful dream about a dim and very distant future, but that all we could hope to achieve in our time would be to make life more and more bearable by means of reforms. Others, again, would say : “Just as the present State owns and manages the Post Office, or the Municipality owns the trams, the electricity works, the water supply, and the rest of it, so should the mines, the railways, canals, and even the factories be publicly owned.” Others,—but enough of the others ; perhaps you yourself are one of the others. Possibly you have seen or heard the word Socialism ever since you can remember anything, and still have only the foggiest notion of what it all means. Let us talk it over together.

Many people are afraid of anything with “ism” on the end of it. They think it is bound to mean something “cranky.” They are not logical in this belief, for the words “Baptism,” “Methodism,” or “Nationalism,” do not alarm them. Let us hope you are not one of those whom words frighten. After all, it is the idea behind all words that matters. You have only to mention the word “science” to some people, and they begin to look bored. And yet science is only reasoning from facts instead of jumping to conclusions.

Take a simple illustration. Who does not wonder at the beauty of the stars that twinkle over our heads on any clear night? For countless ages they have filled mankind with awe and wonderment. Thousands of years ago, the primitive shepherds guarding their flocks from prowling beasts of prey, saw the same stars as we, arranged in much the same “patterns.” In one part of the night sky they clearly discerned Orion, the mighty hunter, with club uplifted to attack the Lion. At his heel were his two dogs, Sirius and Procyon. In another part of the heavens were the Great Bear and the Little Bear; in another, Cygnus, the Swan. There were Castor and Pollux, the Twins; the Fishes and many other wonders. Between wandered the planets, and these had an influence over the lives of the little mortals who watched and studied them. Some were good or lucky stars; others were evil, malevolent stars. Quite a huge body of literature arose about them. The study was called Astrology. Gradually the movements and changes of the heavenly bodies were seen to follow a certain order. These rules or laws of movement were set down, and many men of all races tested them, and added to them, until at last the mighty hunter, the Lion, the Bears, the Swan, and all the rest of the menagerie faded from the sky, and the new definite knowledge of man about the stars became the science of Astronomy.

The same process took place with medicine. In olden days when a person took the fever or caught a mysterious illness in some way, they used to open a vein and draw off a quantity of blood, in the hope that the malady would run out with the blood. The medicines that used to be prescribed are enough to make one shudder. It seemed that nothing could be really effective unless it were horrible. And thus we read of concoctions of spiders, and toads, and vipers’ tongues, dead man’s skin, burnt hair, and all sorts of putridity. Health was indeed a blessing in those days. But as men observed and thought more deeply, they found that illness was caused by dirt, by bad air, by absence of sunlight, by wrong living; and having found the causes of ill-health, the remedies quickly followed.

Other funny old fellows of the past were the Alchemists. They were fond of making all sorts of messes with all sorts of substances. One of their great beliefs was that somewhere there could be discovered or compounded the Philosopher’s Stone, and with this it would be possible to turn lead into gold. Needless to say, their search was unsuccessful, but out of the mass of information and knowledge they collected there grew up our modern Chemistry, one of the most exact and marvellous of our sciences.

And what has all this to do with Socialism? you will ask. I will tell you. It is because Socialism has had a similar history. You will be prepared to admit, I hope, that science is not at all a formidable word, and are further prepared, I trust, to see what there is in the claim of Socialism to be considered scientific. Very well. Now one of the first difficulties we have to deal with is that of prejudice. Most of us are filled with ideas that were implanted in us when quite young, fed and nourished in later years by newspapers and periodicals. Take history, for instance. All we were taught and remember is that the first people in these islands were the Ancient Britons. They stained their bodies with woad and looked upon the mistletoe as sacred. Then the Romans came and conquered them, but eventually had to leave rather hurriedly, leaving them to be harried by hordes of Angles, Jutes and Saxons. Later followed the Danes, and we were told some jolly little tales of King Alfred burning the housewife’s cakes, or disguising himself as a harper and secretly visiting the enemy’s camp. Then came the Normans, and we got tales of the curfew, of Hereward the Wake, and other worthies. And so on through the whole gamut: Richard the Lion Heart; the Black Prince; the Princes in the Tower; Henry the Eighth and his many wives ; the Reformation ; King Charles; Oliver Cromwell; Henrys, and Williams and Georges galore ; the whole interspersed with a great number of awful battles, in which the English were victorious five times out of six. This is History as it is taught to workers’ children. Simply legends, episodes and resounding names. But for upwards of a hundred years History has been treated more scientifically. Instead of looking upon it as a catalogue of entertaining events, men now ask, Why did this event happen, or that? Why did the Roman Empire flourish, and then decay? Why did the Reformation affect not only England, but Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Norway, etc.? Above all, what great driving motive caused different nations to act similarly? How did the discovery of America affect the world? Why have institutions like slavery, feudalism, religion, tribes, kingship, etc., been common to all races of mankind, although separated by thousands of miles, and with no possibility of contact? The answers to all these questions would take us too far in a brief article, but this may be said : Mankind, without distinction of race, has always lived in groups or communities. All have broadly followed the same lines in their progress upward to civilisation. Some, like the Australian Blacks and the Red Indians, were left behind, and have become overwhelmed by more progressive races. The main line of progress has led from Savagery, through patriarchial society to Feudalism, or through handicraft to Capitalism. Each change has been marked, and actually caused by, changes in the methods of holding property, more particularly in the means of living. The stage we are now in is that of Capitalism. This, you will see at once, is quite independent of whether we have a King or a President; whether Lloyd George is a good man or a bad one; whether we are Catholics, Protestants, Atheists, Buddhists, or nothing in particular. Capitalism has three distinguishing features. First, the land, both the surface and the minerals beneath it, is privately owned. The earth and the fulness thereof are in individual hands; Second, the wonderful and ingenious tools, or machines, by which Nature’s raw material is converted into wealth, are owned by individuals or small groups of individuals. Thirdly, the class to which you and I belong are compelled, in order to live, to hire our power to labour to those who have put a fence round Nature. The price of our hire is our wages, and our wages are determined by the cost of living. Not to make too long a story of it, the Socialist says in view of the obvious fact that this system does not work to the benefit of the vast mass of the people, it is time we substituted something more scientific. He points out what should be obvious to anyone with an unwarped mind. If, without access to Mother Nature, man perishes from the planet, is it not elementary common sense to suggest that the earth’s great storehouse should be common property ; that is, socially owned instead of individually owned? The Socialist is one who urges this social ownership. Even the tools and marvellous machinery by which the raw material becomes wealth, he claims are a social product and a social heritage. In every one of them is embodied the toil, the thought, the invention of thousands of separate human beings. They in turn owed all they possessed to the society of which they formed part. The Socialist says these tools are social; they should be socially owned. And the next point. If you think over the words “working class,” has it ever struck you as curious that such a term has arisen? The working class, those who do the work. If all worked, the term would have no meaning. Therefore there must be a class which does not work. And yet the class which does not work consists of immensely wealthy people. Without work, of course, there is no wealth. How curious, then, that the working class is composed of people who have no wealth. The wealth they produce is taken from them by those who own the earth and the means of living. A little has to be returned to them, to enable them to live. This is called wages. Without it the workers would die, or they would rise and destroy their masters. Either way the Capitalist system would come to an abrupt and violent end. Wages, therefore, are on the average just enough to keep the working class alive, and not unduly discontented.

It is not sufficient, however, that the working class should simply become indignant at their treatment or discontented with their lot. Clever men have looked into history and have seen that Capitalism grew out of feudalism, and feudalism out of chattel slavery, simply because the one was a logical development of the other. The stages of human society have followed one upon the other, just like steps, and mankind has only reached the higher by means of the lower. It is idle, therefore, to be merely angry or indignant at what is, after all, a natural growth. As was mentioned previously, society has changed in the past whenever the methods of producing wealth have changed. Our present method is by tools and instruments that are privately owned. It is because of this that the resulting wealth is also privately owned, and the workers consequently poor. The evils that follow this system are obvious. Overwork and unemployment, low wages and insecurity, dog the footsteps of the workers from childhood to premature death. They can only be remedied by abolishing this individual ownership of the means of life, and substituting ownership by the whole people. This would be social ownership, or Socialism. If you will read this journal regularly you will see many articles, telling how this change is to be brought about, and disposing of the objections and difficulties many people bring forward. If you are interested we shall be glad to see you at any of our meetings, and if you are convinced of the truth of the Socialist position we shall be still more pleased to welcome you as a member.

W. T. H.

(Socialist Standard, May 1923)

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