1920s >> 1923 >> no-226-june-1923

The pessimists

There are certain people who show that, to some extent, they are acquainted with the Socialist philosophy, and yet will be heard to utter the sentiment that it is useless talking about the principles of Socialism as the workers, from the point of view of intelligence, are hopeless.

This pessimistic view is often stated by many who have done next to nothing in furthering Socialist knowledge, and perhaps, when noticing the lack of knowledge displayed by the average worker in a discussion of a political and economic character, form the above opinion. But, of course, the workers are not hopeless from an intellectual point of view, whatever a superficial view of their mentality may disclose, for it should be obvious that as they are able to assimilate all the ideas connected with the details of the production and distribution of wealth in modern society, so will they in due course assimilate those ideas which will enable them to secure their freedom from capitalist domination.

To accomplish the establishment of a new-form of society by means of a social revolution, which means that there must first take place a revolution in thought, entails more than the work of a moment; it means a considerable amount of toil to those who carry cut the many functions associated with the organisation of the working class. As those who do the work can testify, it means long and laborious work, and those who shrink from the task because it involves “hard labour ” should realise that they are leaving a larger field to the enemies of Socialism.

In the advocacy of revolutionary ideas the revolutionist encounters many prejudices and preconceived notions, and one can hardly fail to notice when in discussion with members of the working class on the subject of Socialism, how the force of tradition affects their mental outlook. This point may be overlooked by many who lament the “slow” progress made by the workers in forming revolutionary conceptions.

“The tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living,” says Marx, and those whose interest lies in the retention of the private property institutions use all the means at their disposal to preserve the traditional illusions, such as religion, and the abstract notions of justice, morality, etc.

Ideas drag on long after their falsity has been exposed. The workers, in the main, are not acquainted with the scientific method of analysing and classifying their conceptions. To overlook or underestimate the force of tradition is a sad mistake, and that this mistake is frequently made does, to some extent, explain the psychology of those who express the pessimistic view stated above. They appear to think that all that is needed is for one to postulate a logical proposition and its immediate acceptance is assured, thus disregarding the effect of the multifarious ideas that have been gathered in the past.

Leaving aside the part played by tradition, there are other factors in operation today which act in moulding the worker’s ideas. To take the case of the child as an example. From the moment when it begins to form ideas, it imbibes the superstitions of its parents, and later, when at the elementary school, it receives but the barest of “education,” which consists largely of an instruction in capitalist “virtues,” both religious and secular, from the “love of God” to the “love of country.” It has been said of certain of the Jesuits that they have expressed the opinion that, provided they had control of the child’s education until it reached a certain age, that early training would suffice as am effective check against any antagonistic influences that were encountered later in life. While it is well not to interpret this view too rigidly, nevertheless it is certainly true that the ideas assimilated when young have a considerable influence on the mental make-up of a great number of the workers, and the clergy do not fail to recognise the value of obtaining control of the education of the child. But what applies to the sycophantic priest with his means of saturating the minds of workers with superstition, applies with equal force to those who have control of the secular forms of “education.” While it is true that religion has, to a great extent, lost its hold over the minds of the workers, they have imbibed other notions from their masters equally fatal to their class interest. It does not follow that because the worker does not concern himself with religion, that he necessarily exercises his thoughts in the interest of his class, as may be seen in the fact that many who hold definitely anti-religious views are among the opponents of Socialism. Where the priest cannot secure a hold, those in control of the secular forms of “education” usually succeed. In the schools the children are not taught the main factors in the process of wealth production. In history the teaching mainly consists of the deeds and misdeeds of kings and queens, and the records of those who have displayed so much “gallantry” in making England a “land of hope and glory.” What passes under the name of education is little more than an instruction preparatory to entering the labour power market, where they are forced to sell their energy in order to live. It is small wonder that, when the young workers enter the productive area, they are handicapped against grasping ideas which are contrary to those inculcated into their minds in infancy. The ideas expressed in the workshop are generally of the orthodox form; it is unusual to meet with anybody who has the faintest inkling of the working class position, or has become acquainted with the line of action necessary to the establishment of Socialism, Even with those who are generally proclaimed the “rebels,” the confusion of thought is amazing.

Thus, when we take into consideration both the influence of tradition and the instruction given in childhood, there is little room for wonder that the advocacy of revolutionary ideas does not obtain “quick returns.” There is the further point that while the capitalists have control of the Press they are able to disseminate their views by means of the publication of numerous newspapers, books, magazines, etc., whilst Socialists can only at present publish their views in a journal that reaches but an infinitesimal portion of the working class. In comparing the number of meetings held, we have the same enormous difference, where the capitalists and their agents are able to hire the best and largest halls and hold many meetings, we can hold but few in consequence of our limited financial resources. So the dice are loaded heavily in favour of the capitalists, nearly all the channels of “education” being held by them. But the recognition of this does not make us pessimistic ; on the contrary, it acts as a spur to action. The work of enlightening the workers in the knowledge of their slave position and the way out from their slavery, is essential to the establishment of Socialism. The Socialist way out of capitalism is the only way ; consequently the very necessity of Socialist propaganda, as a prelude to the overthrow of capitalist society, and the establishment of Socialism, is sufficient to guard us against pessimism. But in carrying on the work of Socialist education, one qualification is necessary, and that is, we must be patient. It is recorded by Karl Kautsky that when in conversation with Frederick Engels, the latter said, “We have learned to wait, and you in turn must learn to wait your time.”

But, contrary to the sentiment of the poet, he who only waits does not serve the cause of Socialism, so let all those who can, put their shoulders to the wheel and help to break down those intellectual barriers that stand in our way in the struggle for the abolition of human slavery. Our way out of present misery is not only the correct road to travel, but it is the only road open.


(Socialist Standard, June 1923)

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