H. G. Wells’ idealism and the working class
It has often been said that the ideal society will be one in which its members consciously direct their efforts for common good. In the moment when every man will promote the interests of his fellow men regardless of his own individual preferences, so soon will the highest conceivable stage of social progress have been reached. This popular view is also upheld by “pseudo-Socialists.” H. G. Wells, in his “Outline of History,” states
“that the impulse to devotion, to universal service and to a complete escape from self . . . which ebbed so perceptibly during the prosperity, laxity, disallusionment and scepticism of the past seventy or eighty years will re-appear again, stripped and plain, as the recognised structural impulse in human society.”
This Christian sentiment, so lofty and admirable as it appears at first sight, devolves into a very mischievous doctrine—a common consequence of Christian ethics. Here we are led to imagine society as being an undivided mass of individuals each one being capable of a free-will offering to the common prosperity. The idea implies that poverty and all social inequalities can be accounted for by a lack of certain tender feelings on the part of the richer individuals. Mr. Wells has discovered that they have not sufficiently exercised their “impulse to devotion, universal service, etc.” Then what is the remedy? Surely, to convince these misguided wrong-doers of the errors of their ways and persuade them in the Wellsian manner—whatever that may be—to pay more regard in future to the interests of their poorer neighbours. Presumably, they are required to part with a portion of their wealth and distribute it among the unfortunate beings who somehow managed to combine a Christian heart with an empty pocket. It was with exactly this end in view that the Labour Party launched their scheme for a Capital Levy. This was indeed a brilliant idea, concealed in the Gospel of Christ, obscured for nineteen hundred years of misery and want, and re-discovered at last by Mr. Pethick Lawrence under the inspiration of Mr. Wells ! There is but to allow for a Labour Government to give practical application to the divine plan and behold, labour shall cease its awful strife with capital and both shall for ever go arm in arm together. But in the meantime, let us repair to the churches to solicit the spiritual aid of Jesus Christ and Mr. Wells, his prophet !
The Capital Levy might satisfy the Labour Party but it offers no solution to the economic problem. So long as Capitalists own the means of life, so long will the workers be enslaved as wage-earners and poverty prevail. They must concede to the condition that their portion of the wealth produced by his labour—whether paid in the form of wages, salary or otherwise—shall be reduced to something like a living minimum. If he declines this condition, his labour-power is not purchased and he is left to starve into submission. The worker’s prospects under the present system are, therefore, in general entirely hopeless and the Capital Levy can have no effect whatever upon his economic status. The only logical solution to the worker’s problem is to grapple with its roots. The secret of the Capitalists’ power is the fact that they own the means of production, giving them illimitable authority over the whole social system. The worker’s aim, therefore, must be to capture the means of production. This is a task in which the solemn worship of divinity in any form will avail nothing. It will be accomplished only when a workers’ class-conscious majority has achieved political power and wields it in the communal interest. This being established, social progress enters upon a new lease of life which is the only Socialism.
To the sentimental advocates of “complete escape from self,” there is one unmistakable reply—it is unhuman. It does not conform with man’s mental make-up. We have to admit that the first, greatest and happiest effort of the individual is to consider his own welfare. But in human society—and possibly among the higher animals—there is a conscious co-operation between individuals for the purpose of facilitating the struggle for existence. This combination of effort occurs only in the presence of a common enemy, whose defeat can better be secured by social rather than by individual effort. In other words, “mutual aid “—as this co-operative practice is called—is adopted under pressure of necessity when the individual welfare is being threatened. Apart from the union of similar egoistic ambitions, it has no existence; it rests, not on any moral basis, but only on one of utility.
The truth of this interpretation of “mutual aid” is borne out in the facts of modern industrial history. The workers are to-day expressing dissatisfaction with their standard of living. This discontent is manifested in the Trade Unions in which each member aims at promoting his own individual interest, or rather, we should say, apparent interest. To do this more effectively, he is obliged, often against his immediate desire, to unite with his fellow-workers and employ the machinery of the Trade Union to fulfil the common collective demands of the whole body of workers. In order to benefit individually, the workers must act collectively; it is a condition forced upon them by the very magnitude of the modern economic system. They, therefore, employ “mutual aid” but essentially to further the apparent interests of the individual, that is to say, an improvement in the standard of living. For no other cause will they co-operate than for this egoistic purpose.
But this process, as practised to-day by the Trade Unions and the Labour Party, is confused with an element of ignorance. The workers are being educated into the false view that their economic emancipation lies at the far end of a series of steadily improving scale of wages. All that the workers are taught is to strive for a slightly larger share of the wealth they produce. They seek only to gratify their immediate and apparent interests. The result of this policy has been the ever-increasing poverty by which the present society is distinguished.
The Socialist Party, based upon a thorough understanding of the Capitalist mode of exploitation, makes full use of this experience. Under the present economic system the worker receives only a small fraction of the wealth he produces. His scale of wages is determined, on the average, by the cost of his subsistence and the reproduction of his kind. An increased wage scale is, therefore, only of temporary benefit to the workers. The solution of the Socialist Party, briefly stated, is to secure, not a larger fraction of the wealth produced, but actually the whole value of the productions. It is the one indispensable condition by which Capitalist exploitation will definitely cease to exist and for which the class war, as the collective endeavour of individuals, must be waged.
Socialism, therefore, far from advocating “escape from self” really preaches the doctrine of self-interest as the essential feature of a contented community. It is the ideal by the attainment of which the emancipation of the working class and, with it, of society at large will be established. The workers must learn to cease being satisfied with the crumbs which fall from the richly spread table of Capitalism, Nor is it enough that when the crumbs cease to fall, they beg like Oliver Twist for more. They must stimulate their individual interests to the fullest limit and vote for Socialism, i.e., the collective ownership of the means of life It is a simple doctrine, but an all-engaging one. Any ideal short of this may very aptly conform to the reactionary elements of Christianity. But it is not Socialism and will lead society to anything but complete emancipation.
(Socialist Standard, September 1925)