1920s >> 1925 >> no-249-may-1925

What is the Future of Civilisation?


These are the names of two mythological beings who flourished in the ripe imagina¬tion of the Greeks. They are also the respective names of two stimulating little essays, the one by Prof. J. B. S. Haldane and the other by Prof. F. C. S. Schiller. It is impossible adequately to review and attempt to answer the two sets of views in a paper this size, but it may not be unprofitable to consider them a little.

Daedalus is sub-titled “Science and the Future,” and though only cautiously optimistic is by far the more stimulating. The rate at which science is progressing is emphasised by the mention that H. G. Wells in 1902 (“Anticipations”) thought it possible that by 1950 there would be heavier than air flying machines capable of practical use in war. Prof. Haldane undertakes to make no prophecies in his paper “rasher than the above.” In that spirit then, he predicts that future developments in transport and communication are only limited by the velocity of light. Progress of this kind is limited by supplies of human and mechanical power. He considers it possible that capitalism itself may demand that the control of certain key industries be handed over completely to the workers therein, so that sporadic strikes may be eliminated. This argument is interestingly developed, and he turns to mechanical power. What will replace coal and oil? Prof. Haldane’s opinion is that four hundred years hence England will be covered with rows of metallic windmills working electric motors. During windy weather the surplus power will be conserved by using it for the electrolytic decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen. The gases would be liquefied and stored in vacuum jacketed reservoirs. In times of calm the re-combination of these gases in explosion motors would furnish electrical energy once more. So much for power.

He next foresees that immense possibilities await the chemist. At present we rely upon plants for our food, even when we take it at second or third hand from animals or their products. Prof. Haldane considers that less than 120 years will see a completely satisfactory diet, produced by chemistry alone. Agriculture will hus cease as an industry. “Synthetic food will substitute the flower garden and the factory for the dunghill and the slaughterhouse, and make the city at last self-sufficient.”

Prof. Haldane gives the eugenist but short shrift. The eugenic official he describes as a compound of the policeman, the priest and the procurer, and his prophecy as proceeding from a type of mind as lacking in originality as in knowledge of human nature. His own prophecy certainly lacks nothing of originality and consists in what he describes as “ectogenesis.” The first ectogenetic child is to be born in 1951, and apart from the stage of an ovum will dispense with the necessity of a mother. The period of gestation will be spent in a serum or medium, but the more intimate details are left, perhaps wisely and necessarily, to the future. In 1968 France is producing 60,000 children a year by this method, and 150 years hence less than 30 per cent, cf children are to be born of woman. Mother Nature must look to her laurels.

One must read in the book how the sands of the desert, instead of growing cold as the ballad singer has assumed, are to be made fruitful, and the deep blue sea to become a permanent beautiful purple. It is not as nonsensical as it may appear. We think it probable Prof. Haldane would not disclaim the label of Socialist, but fear he would not feel at home in the S.P.G.B. The reason will appear presently. It is refreshing to note that he includes Marx with the great figures in world history. He warns the conservative that he has little to fear from the man whose passions play second fiddle to his reason. He is to beware of him in whom reason has become the greatest of his passions. These, the doubters, are the wreckers of effete civilisation. It may take another world-war or two to convert the majority, but the next world-war has at least one satisfactory element. In the last one the most rabid patriots were well behind the front line. In the next, no one will be be¬hind the front line.

He sums up by saying, science is as yet in its infancy, and we can foretell little of the future save that the thing that has not been is the thing that shall be; that no beliefs, no values, no institutions are safe. He reiterates that not one of the practical advances he has predicted is not already foreshadowed by recent scientific work. Briefly the outlook appears gloomy and threatening in the immediate future whilst the dull majority is learning its lesson, but the first gleams of a scientific dawn are discernible about 25 years hence.

Prof. Schiller pooh-poohs the gloom. Mankind has always known enough to wreck itself, but chance or providence has enabled it to avoid destruction. What is needed is just a little clear thinking and plain speaking. His first fact is that mankind ceased to evolve biologically about 30,000 years ago. This raises two further questions; how did it happen and what caused it? And secondly why has he progressed in other respects ; knowledge, power and culture. His answer to the first is that man ceased to develop biologically when he developed social habits. Singly nature weeded out all but the giants. Socially the herd protected its weaklings. His answer to the second is that social institutions like language and writing, have dictated social progress by preserving experience and knowledge independent of the death of the individual. Prof. Schiller develops his thesis very cogently, and opines that modern man (with a slight reservation) is slightly inferior to his own ancestors and markedly inferior to the great races of antiquity (like the Greeks) in their hey-day. Morally, we learn, modern man is substantially identical with his palaeolithic ancestors. This is not the end of our tale of woe. In one particular he is in agreement with Prof. Haldane. The latter says that ectogenesis will save civilisation from collapsing from the greater fertility of its less desirable members (page 66).- Prof. Schiller occupies about nine pages in developing the same line of thought, i.e., that the “best” elements in civilisation are sterilising themselves through restricting their families whilst the continued growth of population is mainly due to the unrestrained breeding of casual labourers and the feeble-minded. Dean Inge has said something similar, but then he is only a follower of the Casual Labourer of Nazareth. (Capital letters make a difference, don’t they?). All men, professors, or otherwise, have their blind spot, and it is curious though understandable that these two should be so similarly afflicted. It is still more curious and less understandable that men whose obvious pride is clear-cut English and lucid thought should commit themselves to such tawdry, fustian expressions as “desirable,” or “best” as scientific descriptions of definite categories. Desirable for what? Best for what? What a begging of questions ! What rubbish ! Pardon this unprofessorlike language, but we have a shrewd suspicion that we are classed with the undesirables. The Freudians would say we suffer from an “inferiority complex.” We are not of the “best.” The felicity of attending Oxford or Cambridge has been denied us. We have been too busy working for the men whose sons the learned professors are teaching. It is only too obvious that their “desirables” and “bests” are those who have achieved wealth and position in our modern capitalist civilisation ; those who have attained “success,” those who have specialised in the exploitation of their fellows. Whom is it otherwise? Who are the “best”? Who are the “desirables ”? And who are the “worst” and the “undesirables?” Professor Schiller permits himself the “shrewd suspicion that certain types, say the feeble¬minded, the sickly, the insane, are undesirable, and that …. certain other types, say the intelligent, healthy and energetic, are inherently superior to the former.” This occurs so late in the book as to look like an afterthought. He has therefore no time to inquire whether the causes of the first three conditions are discoverable or remediable. When he says, “no good can come of coddling and cultivating them,” we can almost visualise him idly planning a lethal chamber on the mar¬in of his manuscript. Prof. Schiller is a eugenist and eugenics implies the sterilisation or extinction of those below a certain standard. And who is to set the standard and who enforce it? Would it be universally enforced? We mean, would the Duke of Northumberland, or Westminster, or Lord Banbury, be subject to the same impartial treatment as the village idiot? We venture to doubt it.

We welcome the excursions of thinkers such as Professors Haldane and Schiller into the world of real men but they often seem to have one objectionable quality. Their cloistered seclusion among the sons of the rich seems to have imparted an air of aloofness to their views. They appear to overlook the fact that the little world in which they live, move and have their being is not the real world at all. Their pupils and their friends are by no means the “best” or the “desirable.” Numerically a handful, they are in the strictly scientific sense parasitic. If they were to vanish from the planet, production would go on unperturbed. Those destined for industrial pursuits as they might term them are solely concerned with acquiring skill in the intensive exploitation of labour. The ladders by which they or their fathers climbed to eminence are carefully withdrawn, lest a better man follow and push them down. The real world consists of the toiling millions who compose the vast bulk of human society. Without them there would be no society in a civilised sense at all. They are human society. They may be inarticulate, slow of thought and unimaginative, but we are of them. They are bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh. We can see undesirables being created every day. We can see our best being starved, stunted, exploited, and robbed always. We can see our geniuses denied opportunity or swindled out of their reward constantly. And we can discern the causes of it all. Society, a social product, is being run for the benefit of a select few. They safeguard their hold on the powers of production by also controlling the armed forces. Society, however, is greater than they, and their perpetual problem is how to get rid of the enormous wealth produced by modern machinery without stopping the machine. The body politic is increasingly liable to the illness called slump, and the slump is increasingly due to over-production. And now, more and more are coming to see that there is something wrong with a society that condemns the bulk of its members to poverty, a poverty which is intensified with every increase in the production of wealth.

Of course there is something wrong. The wealth producing machinery of society is owned and controlled by a few. Their sole concern is not the benefit of society as such but their own individual benefit. The productive forces have outgrown this petty, personal restriction, and the Socialist says the time has come when they should be owned, by society as a corporate organism. Humanly speaking we cannot expect the capitalists to view this prospect with any enthusiasm or to co-operate in its achievement. Fortunately they are numerically negligible and solely depend upon the workers consistently and persistently handing them the keys of power every election day. Their trust has been justified so far, but we propose a change. We propose that at a future election the workers send to Parliament delegates pledged and instructed to take control of the armed forces of the nation, and to then legislatively convert the whole productive machinery of society from private to social ownership. This requires organisation. The beginnings of that organisation exist in the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Join it.

W. T. H.

(Socialist Standard, May 1925)

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