Socialism and the Mental Revolution
The human mind, like all things organic and otherwise, undergoes a process oi change due to the continual change in its environment, that is to say, in the conditions determining its development. This simple fact is continua ignored by the opponents of Socialist education of all shades of thought, from the crusted Tory to the impatient Communist, who believes in ”revolution” by means of an “intelligent minority.”
If we glance over human history we discover that the growth of knowledge and mental activity has been by no means uniform or smoothly, regular. There have been long periods in which certain ideas, expressing themselves in various social customs and institutions, have reigned supreme only to be swept aside in a comparatively short space of time by ideas, customs and institutions of an opposite character. As instances, we may cite the downfall of paganism and the triumph of Christianity within the Roman Empire, which marked the passing of the ancient patriarchal order of society and the rise of feudalism; likewise the break-up of Catholicism before the onslaught of Protestant and Rationalist criticism which coincided with the decay of feudalism, the seizure of estates of the Church, and the development of modern capitalist society.
Up till the last century the human mind was wrapped in the swaddling clothes of
religion; therefore changes in the general mental outlook of mankind have appeared to be simply religious changes. As above indicated, however, these changes have been closely connected with social and political revolutions and the various factions in the religious world are found on examination to be practically identical with certain organised class interests. These interests have fought their battles with a ferocity which is by no means attributable simply to fanaticism on speculative or ethical questions. Conflicting “faiths” have merely sanctified in the eyes of their respective holders the greed which has been the real basis of their hostility.
In other words, the various classes which have in succession arisen and dominated society, while in a very large measure conscious of their material interests, have not understood the forces whose development has provided them with their position and the opportunity of satisfying their ambitions. Before these forces could be understood in a scientific manner they had first to develop to maturity. They had to shake off the fetters of “individualism” and become social in character.
This event commenced a century and a half ago and is known as the industrial revolution. The death of handicraft and the birth of machine industry set free productive powers latent in society which revealed for the first time the existence of economic law. Various thinkers from the ancients downwards had speculated and arrived at half-truths concerning the material basis of society; but to make a science of economics, and therefore of history, the economic forces themselves had to seize upon society, as it were, and beat their own lessons into the heads of men. “Control us or perish !” is the insistent demand these forces make to-day ; but to control requires understanding. Hence the attempt to control the economic resources of society is identified with the shedding of all superstition concerning the nature of these resources.
Rebellious classes in the past attributed their success to the favour of gods or the superiority of their moral codes; but the revolutionary section, of the subject class of to-day, the wage-slave class, has no use for religion or ethics. Science, organised knowledge, is its only weapon, its only means of self-fortification in the struggle for emancipation. “Study and learn!” is therefore the keynote of Socialist propaganda.
“Ha !” says our opponent, “but the masses will never study, they will never learn!” and he points to the well-known lethargy which sometimes appears to be the principal mental characteristic of the modern slave. He seizes upon a half-truth and makes of it a lie !
In spite of all the apathy and apparent indifference the masses slowly, but none the less surely, are studying and learning. Indeed it would be nothing less than a miracle if they were not. Face to face with an environment which is changing more rapidly than at any previous period in history, each succeeding generation of workers sheds something of the superstition of its forbears. One by one the links in the mental chains are snapping and the workers’ minds strain towards the light.
Those who assert that the workers will never learn attempt to make the workers’ minds an exception to the general law of adaptation so apparent everywhere in the universe. They postulate a supernatural density on the part of the slave and treat his ignorance as though it was a basic cause instead of an effect of his poverty. When one considers the exhausting and, brutalising nature of the toil exacted from the modern slave the wonder, if any must be, that there is any. mental energy with which to think at all.
In addition to this physical factor there is the deliberately reactionary “education” with which the workers are crammed . during childhood and the similar influence of the daily press. Yet in spite of every such effort on the part of the ruling class to preserve their mental grip upon their slaves, what do we find?
The Churches have long ago confessed their inability to hold their own against popular indifference and the effects of increasing technical knowledge. The numbers of the workers who willingly absorb the dope of religion steadily declines.
In the realm of politics, we find a similar process of disintegration on the part ol accepted beliefs and institutions. While the Socialist does not share the illusions current concerning the rise of the Labour Party, this much at least is evident, viz., that the parties openly standing for the existing social order are rapidly losing their grip of the workers’ minds. Social changes are desired, although their necessary character is far from being, correctly understood. Thus in both fields of traditional thought and popular activity, i.e., religion and politics, we find a growing scepticism concerning things as they are.
The industrial upheaval has resulted in a growth of positive knowledge difficult to estimate to its full extent, because of the inherent tendency of mental forms to survive for some considerable time the steady change in their inner content. The process can perhaps best be described as one of undermining. On the surface the present structure appears as it was, but the forces beneath are none the less preparing its collapse.
It is the function of the Socialist Party to organise the workers as rapidly as the change in their environment compels them to recognise the social character of the process of production, and consequently the necessity of its being controlled in the interests of society at large if exploitation ana poverty for the workers are to be abolished.
(Socialist Standard, October 1924)