The Socialist Ideal
The Socialist is accustomed to being accused, alternately, of being an “impractical idealist” and a “gross and sordid materialist,” often by the same person in almost the same breath. What truth is there in these contradictory charges? Let us see !
The Socialist proposes a fundamental change in the social order. He desires to realise a state of affairs at present existing only as a general idea in his mind. He denies that Capitalism is the final achievement of the human race. Undoubtedly, then, he possesses an ideal, a hope to strive for. But does this make him an idealist, and an impractical one at that?
When a man, feeling hungry, conceives a desire for his dinner, no one thinks of him as a hero, although men have, from time to time, performed deeds of valour, .and even given up life in the quest of that same dinner. Similarly, when a group of men set about building a house, or a battleship, they interfere with “nature,” upset the existing state of affairs in the particular sphere in which they are engaged in order to change “the actual,” and realise an idea. Yet, time was when houses and battleships were beyond the range of human thought. Are they then miracles? By no means ; Men, in the struggle for life, have increased their knowledge of their material environment and, consequently, their capacity to change it.
The realisation of the Socialist ideal does not demand the operation of any unknown or supernatural force. On the one hand, we have the workers capable of producing all the desirable objects of human existence; on the other, the means whereby they can do so, the land and the machines, the latter the product of labour. The Socialist proposes that these two indispensable factors of social life, the workers and the instruments of labour, shall become united legally, as they are industrially. That is to say, that just as the workers operate the instruments in question, so they shall also own them, in common for the common good.
In this proposal there is no suggestion that material things should be forgotten. On the contrary, they are held to be of supreme importance. The Socialist trusts to no divine illumination, nor miraculous “change of heart.” He sees the wants of his fellow-workers, and he sees abundant means for their satisfaction. What is there superhuman about bringing them together?
Let us consider the obstacles. To commence with, the land and the machines are at present the property of a small class of people. By reason of this fact, this class is in a position to enjoy the fruits of social labour without taking part in the process. A natural desire to continue the habits of congenital laziness so fostered is sufficient to induce this class to resist any change in the distribution of property in the means whereby they live. For the purpose of making as effective a resistance as possible, this class has developed and entrenched itself behind the machine known as the State, which directs and controls certain unanswerable arguments in favour of things, as they are in the shape of guns, ammunition, etc., plus the human and mechanical means of using the same. This is the principal active obstacle.
In addition, there exists the passivity of the workers, their failure to grasp the cause, nay, even the fact, of their enslavement. This second obstacle, negative though it may appear, is even more important than the first. Were it not for the acquiescence of the workers the master class would be destitute of slaves to do their bidding in the fields and factories, at the ballot-box, or behind the guns. The initial task of the Socialist, therefore, is to arouse the workers, to inspire them with revolutionary discontent, and to provide them with a clear understanding of the facts of their position. Herein is recognised the real and practical importance of the idea.
The capitalist objector to Socialism sees in this the degradation of the idea. Nothing suits him better than to keep matter and mind, fact and thought, in water-tight compartments. Let the workers keep their minds on a God who is intangible, or on boxers or horses, whom they rarely, if ever see, on anything, in fact, but the “gross and sordid” economic world which matters so much. Let them fill their heads with notions of brotherly love for their masters, and of hatred for imaginary enemies beyond the seas, them put their feet in the clouds and stand on their heads. That is the capitalist idea of “practical idealism !”
The Socialist does not shrink from the charge of materialism; but to him, there is no necessity to separate mind from matter. He recognises no metaphysical distinctions and antagonisms between the subjective and objective aspects of reality, regards mental processes as essentially part of the general process of human life, inextricably bound up with its environment and sharing the same material composition. There is one world only, not two.
The Socialist, therefore, applies his mind to the solution of the material problems around him, viz., want in the midst of plenty, wealth for the idlers, and misery for the toilers. The terms “gross and sordid” apply, not to the man who appreciates and revolts against the existing system, but to the system itself, idealist seeks to give us “beautiful ideas.” The ugly facts are left to take care of themselves. The Socialist, however, proclaims the necessity, not merely for thought, but action. The system must be changed,, and we the workers must change it !
How? By the removal of the obstacles. By removing the capitalist class from control : first, of the political machine, the State; secondly, of the means of wealth production.
And the outcome of the change? Just imagine, fellow-workers, if you can, yourselves in possession of the earth and the giant instruments of labour, which you and the rest of your class have produced ! Would you toil till you had exhausted your energy in order that the few might run riot in luxury; while you pinched and scraped and made shift with insufficient food,, shoddy clothes, ugly and cramped houses, and no leisure to speak of in which to enjoy the fruits of your toil? Would you rest content in ignorance of the universe around you chock-full as it is of interest and fascination for the human mind? Would you support the lackeys of oppression and superstition, the lawyer-politicians and the parsons? Would you, free men and women, leave it to them to legalise and sanctify your loves, or to punish and condemn you for your hates? Nay! would you not rather rise at last to some approach to human dignity? Would you not lay claim to the heritage to which you now in vain aspire—health, enlightenment and happiness?
Fellow-workers, the road is clear if you would but open your eyes and look ! If you would but use the same energy and intelligence in your own interest that you waste in the service of those who abuse, exhaust and poison your bodies, and starve and ridicule your minds. Can you not display the same enthusiasm for your own needs and desires as you do for those of the class which despises and humiliates you? These masters ! these ”educated people !” what have they done for you? You, who plough and sow, quarry and mine, build and lay tracks, spin and weave ! What have they done, these your “superiors,” with the wealth and power which you in your ignorance have placed and left in their hands? The rude vigour of your ancestors is gone; disease, insidious and relentless, stalks unchecked among you. The machine “saves, labour” by taking the bread from your mouths.
Is there a family among you that escaped paying some toll in the four years’ carnage so readily forgotten and forgiven?
Yet, it only needs good food, fresh air and rational enjoyment to cure disease ! It only needs organisation to apportion the world’s work equitably, and abolish, simultaneously, drudgery and idleness! Mutual understanding on the part of the workers of the world is all that is necessary to banish war and the fear of war !
But the task has been too much for your masters. These “captains of industry,” self-styled, have failed to wring life from nature for you. Is it too much, fellow-workers, to do it for yourselves?
(Socialist Standard, July 1923)