1920s >> 1924 >> no-234-february-1924

Phrase Worship

There are few things more dangerous to the student—whether df politics or of any other subject—than the habit of mind which mistakes an eloquent phrase for a powerful argument, and, accepts a striking illustration as proof of the principle it is intended merely to illustrate. Persuasive eloquence may be a gift, or it may be won by arduous toil, but there is at least no reason to believe that it serves only under the banner of Truth. There would be lean times for lawyers if this were so.

As for the seductiveness of the carefully chosen example, there never was an unsound theory which could not be supported by battalions of plausible instances ; and there is no notion so transparently false that it will not serve to explain certain experiences to some person or other.

How else could fallacies win adhérents or be conceived at all?

Everyone knows how the skilful orator can persuade people by his, eloquence to accept an argument which would fail to convince them if they examined it coldly and critically. And even if the argument be sound, it is probable that most of those who hear it and are so readily persuaded that it is true have in fact not understood it at all. It is not possible to grasp in a moment the whole of the strong and weak points of a new principle ; but it is fatally easy to grasp its application to a special instance, while overlooking the probability that the instance has been chosen because it is appropriate, and not because it is typical. The general principle, to be true, must apply without exception to all – the events coming within its scope.

Protectionists urged at the recent election that unemployment cannot exist where there is protection of home industries, and for evidence they said : “Look at America.” It gained many votes, but it will be remembered that there was usually no attempt made to prove the assertion. Those who made it relied solely on the force of the illustration, which was of course selected because, to the unreflecting, it seemed to be conclusive. No account was taken of the many countries where unemployment and protection are existing side by side at the present time, nor of the many occasions when they have coincided in the U.S.A. This illustration is of so little value really, that it could be used to support any number of other fallacious explanations of unemployment. For example : “Those countries are free from unemployment whose national pastime is gum-chewing. Look at America ! ”

In order that such a statement could be regarded as proved it would be necessary to list all the main possible consequences of protection in a particular country, and show how they would be likely to affect the amount of unemployment. The existence of both unemployment and protection in any other country would be fatal unless it could be accounted for by some special counteracting circumstances, for there can be no exceptions to a valid principle.

The saying, “The exception proves the rule,” is, as usually understood, just nonsense. What is really meant is that the apparent exception tests the rule. We, for instance, assert that unemployment is a necessary feature of the capitalist mode of production. If that is true, then every capitalist, country should be subject to periodic trade stagnation and unemployment. France at once presents itself as an exception, until we remember that France has a large standing army composed of men who would otherwise be unable to find civil employment. The rule is thus tested by the apparent exception, and found not to have been shown incorrect as far as France is concerned.

There are many people who have phrases like the one given in the last paragraph, which they use on all occasions to explain any controversial question. Unfortunately, they do not realise that they are erecting a barrier between themselves and the truth they wish to comprehend, and that through making no real effort, but simply satisfying themselves with a surface explanation, they are retarding their mental development. They also lay themselves open to deception by interested persons who know the powerful effect on the mind of these deadly drugs.

How often do we meet opponents who think they have answered our arguments by repeating the proverb, “Half a loaf is better than no bread.” By this they mean that Socialism is not immediately obtainable, therefore, it is advisable to make the best of a bad business and try to reform capitalism.

They have some near relations—described satirically as the “step-at-a-time-and-the-smaller-the-better” school—who reach the same conclusion by way of the saying, “You must walk before you can run.”

Now let us examine these two wise remarks, beginning with the first. As a simple statement of fact, meaning that the persons who want bread to eat had better the half a loaf than no bread at all, its truth needs no demonstration; but when used as an argument it is intended to mean much more than that. We can safely go further and agree that it can be applied correctly to all things of the same kind in similar relationships.

But it is just here that the danger arises. Examination ought to be, but generally is not, made before we can be satisfied that there is any analogy. For this reason we might usually just as well try to get our independent proof by treating each new problem on its merits. The trouble is that the phrase is used without discrimination, as if it were a general proof, valid in all kinds of circumstances; which it certainly is not.

If someone were searching for things to throw at your head you would hardly consider that “half a loaf is better than no bread at all.” Again the force of the proverb depends on the nature of loaves. Solomon had no hesitation in deciding that half a baby is not better than no baby at all, and the baby’s mother agreed with the verdict. And the Prince in “Hassan” quite rightly foresaw that his chief of police and his military commandant, who were rival claimants for the credit of capturing an important prisoner, would not feel honoured by being compelled to split a gorgeous robe between them.

Before this proverb can properly be used as an argument in favour of reforms as against concentrating on the demand for Socialism, it is necessary to show that Socialism is divisible like bread, i.e., that it is merely the result of adding reforms to reforms. Examination however shows that it is not. Socialism is a system of society based upon the common ownership of the means of wealth production. Reforms are reforms of capitalism, which is a system of society based on private ownership. It therefore untrue that “reforms of capitalism” and “Socialism” stand to each other in the same relation as “half a loaf” to a “whole loaf.” There is no analogy, and thus the proverb has no bearing whatever on the problem under consideration.

It is, of course, open to those who hold this view to argue on other grounds that agitation for reforms is justifiable. They might try to prove that such agitation yields, or could yield, material benefit to the workers; but they would need to bear in mind that if they could give satisfactory proof, they would then be in danger of proving at the same time that Socialism is unnecessary. Our contention against the reform programme is that it usually fails, that the efforts are out of all proportion to the gains, and that it obscures the main issue, and thus hinders progress towards Socialism.

It is not my purpose here to substantiate my assertion : that has often been done in these pages. My present purpose is merely to show that our case is not so much as touched by the story of the loaf.

Treating in the same way the proverb, “You must walk before you can run,” notice how this too depends on the special nature of the activities referred to, while like the other, claiming universal application. Is it necessary to walk on one leg before you can walk on two? Do tadpoles have to learn to walk before they can learn to swim? And has it any real bearing on the kind of activities required in replacing one economic system by another? Is it not merely a piece of laziness to avoid the necessity of dealing, with the facts of the situation?

Some of the things requiring proof are these : (1) That modification of capitalism, such as nationalisation or State capitalism, are steps towards Socialism, and not away from it; (2) That they are in themselves beneficial to the workers; and (3) That they are necessary. The facts are : (1) That they are only additional obstacles; (2) That they are intrinsically bad for the workers; and (3) that they are quite unnecessary.

Having said that, the onus is on us to prove it, and on our opponent’s to disprove it. If I were to point, out that a doctor tending a smallpox patient does not waste his time treating each spot separately, but goes straight to the root of the trouble; and if all the members of the Labour Party were to reply in chorus : “You must walk before you can run,” no advance would have been made towards the settlement of the disputed question. But both statements are unquestionably true, and each is legitimately applicable to certain phenomena.

I would like to add that it is now about 120 years since capitalism began its “great” code of social reform. During those years the system has been constantly changing, but it is still the same capitalist system. The workers have had inflicted upon them innumerable reforms of different kinds, yet they are now, relatively to their powers of production, worse off than ever before. And the reason is simplicity itself. Reforms are but attempts to remedy the ever-increasing evils wrought by capitalism, but even if successful, the system still goes on producing new evils or aggravating old ones, and it does so much faster than the reformers can hope to arouse a sufficient demand for the passing of reform acts to meet them.

It has yet to be proved that further experience of “walking” under capitalism will teach the workers how to “run” under Socialism. It appears to me that the State-regulated “Labour” administered capitalism of to-day or to-morrow has no useful lesson to teach the worker with eyes to see, which was not plainly visible in the competitive anarchy of fifty years ago; and there are many activities, modes of thought and ethical notions that must be unlearned before Socialism is going to be a reality.

Running may be regarded approximately as “quickened walking,” but Socialism is not by any means capitalism polished and tinkered up; it is something different, because its foundation is different.

I suggest that the workers have been passive under capitalism because they have not yet learned to see that it is obsolete and therefore a social nuisance. If the inevitable worsening of conditions under capitalism breeds discontent in place of passivity it is a criminal act to turn that discontent towards reforms of capitalism, when without much more trouble it might be turned towards Socialism.

That passage like the one I wrote before contains assumptions to be justified and conclusions to be proved, but again I am not going to try to prove them here. All I wish to do is to repeat with emphasis that they are not to be proved nor disproved by references to quite other forces operating on objects of a different kind.

It is not possible to compile a complete, twentieth century “Guide to Emancipation” out of ancient proverbs, old wives’ tales, nursery rhymes and other interesting odds and ends of learning and wisdom, gathered from the mind of the race in its infancy, or coined in rough and ready fashion in the turmoil of every-day life.


(Socialist Standard. February 1924)

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