1920s >> 1923 >> no-227-july-1923

Socialism and the “Artistic Temperament.”

In contemplating the social environments of life as constituted to-day, most people (those people, that is, whose mental horizon is capable of embracing something more than a horse-race or a cinema-show) have been forced, often reluctantly, to arrive at the conclusion that “the times are out of joint”; that the world—at least superficially—is little else than a mad conglomeration of sordid toils and yet more sordid pleasures, of brutal tyrannies and ignoble sufferings, of hypocrisy masquerading in the garb of righteousness, of legalised theft and murder.


Many of these people, mainly of the working class, young, in easier economic circumstances, perhaps, than others of their fellow-workers, have what is called “artistic tastes”; that is, they take a more than cursory interest in literature, or some one or other of the arts, or in science, maybe; they dabble as amateurs in literature, or art, or science, instead of following the example of their relatives and friends who, in most cases, are interested in nothing, or in what is often worst than nothing.


These members of the working class (though, doubtless, the idea would be scorned by the high-born and high-bred “artistic” capitalist circles) have, it would seem, by some almost miraculous process, managed to develop a sense of what is beautiful in nature and art, have desires for a fuller development of their faculties. They feel an urge towards a broader outlook on life, but find, as the years pass and their responsibilities increase, that their economic circumstances, even though easier and more comfortable than those of the majority of their fellow-workers, circumscribe increasingly their views on art and literature, their desires for personal development, their cravings for a fuller existence. At this stage some of them drop out, go with the aimless crowd of mediocre beings; some, disillusioned and without hope, turn, in their bitterness, to the blackest pessimism; a few examine and analyse their economic circumstances, delve into the causes that make such circumstances inevitable, obtain a true conception of their place in nature and in society, and finally seek and discover the only means whereby they can emerge from the thraldom of servitude into the freedom necessary for the full development of their faculties. They, a small but ever-growing number, embrace the Socialist philosophy, and in so doing obtain a serenity of outlook, a power of facing reality, unknown to those others, who stand at present, irresolute, disillusioned, bitterly resentful against fate, outside the Socialist organisation.


The aforementioned mood of bitterness and pessimism, engendered by the results of an evil environment, is one to which all the more sensitive intellects of all countries in all ages have been particularly prone; but an examination of the works and lives of the men and women who have in their utterances given expression to their disgust with and rebellion against their social and political surroundings will show that the scientific and historical sense have, as a rule, been largely lacking in their mental make-up. Highly emotional, their minds a sensitive plate scratched and torn by every ugly and vicious impression received, they shrink from an analysis of the evils they experience and visualise, and can only voice their feelings of antagonism towards something— they hardly know what—that threatens to engulf them in a black wave of bitterness and irritability. In practically all such people, while their reaction to bad and degrading impressions is greater than the average, their power of analysing these impressions and placing them in their correct historical perspective, is almost nil. Artists—whether writers, or painters, or musicians—are more liable than any other body to find whatever sense of proportion and humour they may have possessed swallowed up in the spectacle of what they consider a mad and diseased universe, and thus it is that so many of the greatest and noblest works of art are so often overshadowed and obscured by a sense of gloom and foreboding.


But, leaving out of the question people of artistic genius or talent, to anyone not totally blind to the realities of life, the brutality, sordidness, and suffering engrained in present-day capitalist society must strike home continually with a force similar to that with which the waves of a tempestuous sea buffet the face of an unwary or inexperienced swimmer.


From the Socialist standpoint, the mere perception to and rebellion against the evils of capitalism is not enough. We, too, detest the world-evils surrounding us; we too, have a gnawing sense of insecurity and captivity; have the same feelings of revolt against the insults and sufferings to which we, as workers, as wage-slaves, are subjected. But it is here that we as Socialists part company with those who have not yet acquired a knowledge of the Socialist philosophy. The pessimistic non- Socialist is either afraid or unable to face the facts of life; he cannot or dare not attempt to discover why what are called “social evils” exist; he is unable to understand that such things as the poverty of mind and body, the rapacity, the callousness and viciousness engrained in the human race are the inevitable and irrepressible outcome of a social system which bears within it the seeds of the ills and pains and penalties under which mankind is to-day fated to suffer. He can only visualise society, with all its multitudinous evils, as a thing in itself; he can look neither back to the causes nor foresee the results of those phenomena he hates and deplores; while to the Socialist, to the man who has realised that capitalist society, being an organism, must have been born from the womb of an older form of society, must have its period of growth to maturity, and must finally disintegrate and die (and in dying give birth to a new form of society), to the man the evils which he, also, sees and hates and deplores are seen but as a passing phase in the long-drawn-out history and man and his association with his fellows.


There are good and bad in all things, even in Capitalism. By “good” we mean whatever tends to uplift man, as an individual, as a social unit, as a part of the human race, on to a higher plane of life: by “bad” all that tends to drag him downwards to a level even below the appallingly low one he at present occupies. True it is that under capitalism the “good” is most negligible, whilst the “bad” increases in volume and intensity as the death throes of the present system become more violent. The Socialist, being neither optimist nor pessimist, sees whatever good there may be, and accepts it for what it is worth; sees also the bad, and while obliged to bow before its power, at the same time rebels in word and deed against the necessity for so doing. He is neither greatly elated nor distressed at whatever comes. Always and at all times he keeps in the forefront of his thoughts and actions his endeavour to encompass and prepare for the downfall of the system (capitalism) that engenders the bad, and to hasten the initiation of the coming social order (Socialism) which will spread and enhance the good. Unremitting work, based on knowledge, in the cause of Socialism— herein lies the remedy for the depression and feeling of hopelessness that so often overtakes the non-Socialist who is endeavouring to escape from his capitalistic captivity.


The distance to travel before the consummation of our desires is reached may be short or long. What, then—what, after all, do a few years or a few centuries count in the evolution of mankind? It is the inheritance we hand on to the future that will decide our status in the eyes of those who will follow us, will decide whether we be numbered amongst those weaklings “who have never lived,” or with those who, while continuously struggling onward, have only failed in their high endeavours because the fruits of the new order of life were not yet ripe enough to be plucked and enjoyed.


F. J. Webb