1920s >> 1925 >> no-254-october-1925

Economics and Ideas. Their influence on political institutions

(Concluded from last month).


The impregnation of the worker’s mind with individualist beliefs and his delusion of freedom are obviously a tremendous asset— practically a necessity—to the smooth running and perpetuation of the capitalist order. This was early recognised by intelligent agents of the employing class, and, from the dawn of the system the deliberate fostering and strengthening of such ideas by propaganda was attempted—but in an inefficient and unorganised way. But after the workers had won the franchise, definite organs for their “instruction” in the “way they should think” were necessary. “Now, if ever,” says Engels, “the people must be kept in order by moral means.” Engels, in his “Socialism—Utopian and Scientific” (Introduction), goes on to show the use the English bourgeoisie made of religion. Here we will consider three other agents—the school, the press, and the platform.

Upon the passing of the Reform Bill of 1867, one prominent politician sarcastically exclaimed, “Now we must educate our new masters.” Within three years the first State education scheme in England was adopted, and the Board Schools established. Six years later (1876), elementary education was made compulsory. No worker could now escape from acquiring not only the groundwork of bourgeois ideology in his most impressionable years, but also the special national applications of it through falsified history and the glorification of his “heritage”—the constitutional “charter” of his “liberties.” The training of the young worker was a master stroke of the ruling class.

Newspapers from their origin had hitherto been primarily organs of opinion and information amongst the propertied classes— and solid, serious, relatively trustworthy, and comparatively expensive. But when the workers had the capacity to read and the power of the vote, the press developed a new purpose and with it new methods and characteristics. The press especially for proletarian consumption—the sensational, hypocritical, lying, “yellow press”— appeared. In 1855 the Stamp Act had been repealed, and this, with new developments in paper-making, made a more popular press possible. New cheap papers sprang up all over the country, and old ones reduced their price. But it was after the extension of the franchise that the great developments occurred. The “Britannica” article, “Newspapers,” clearly states its basis:—

“Between 1870 and 1880 a complete revolution was effected as a result of social and educational changes” (564). “The modern impulse culminating in England in the last decade of the 19th century in what was then called the ‘New Journalism,’ was a direct product of American conditions and ways of life (political democracy), but in Great Britain it was also the result of the democratic movement produced by the Education Act of 1870 and the Reform Act of 1885, and it affected more or less all countries which came within the influence of free institutions.” (11th ed., vol. 19, p. 547.)

The modern newspaper sets before the worker distorted “news” and a view of affairs deliberately calculated to foster the hold over him of bourgeois ideology. It does not produce this ideology, but constantly provides fresh details acceptable to it—the “evidence” upon which it feeds and thrives.

That unique political fact, an enfranchised slave-class, furthermore, meant the unqualified triumph of the type of politician whose business it is to deliberately cajole and mislead the electorate. In his “Democracy and Liberty,” Lecky deplores the deterioration of English “political morality” that came after 1867—without, however, recording the true cause of it. The new political showmen were a necessity of the new political situation. They became the latest popular “heroes of society.” To regularly give a semblance of intense sincerity to the most hypocritical arguments is no light task, and men who excelled in it won the gratitude of the ruling class. Lloyd George is, of course, a splendid latter-day specimen, but perhaps the most skilful of all the modern political demagogues was Gladstone. Lecky, in the book mentioned, commenting on his special abilities says :—

“No one could compare with him in dexterity of word fencing and hair-splitting, and in the evasive subtleties of debate. . . . Nothing was more curious than to hear him make a speech on a subject on which he did not wish to give an opinion. The long roll of sonorous and misty sentences, each statement ingeniously qualified, each approach to precision so skilfully shaded by some calculated ambiguity of phrase, speedily baffled the attentive listener. . . . There was seldom a speaker from whose words it was so difficult to extricate a precise meaning; who so constantly used language susceptible of different interpretations; who so often seemed to say a thing, and by seeming to say it raised hopes and won influence and applause without definitely binding himself to it. Further, no other great politician so habitually steeped his politics in emotion, and this was one great cause of his wide, popular influence.”

Gladstone became the most popular and adored statesman of his time, and his portrait, along with that of Jesus Christ, still defaces the walls in thousands of working-class houses. Finally, it is significant that in the United States—the land of “liberty” in excelsis—where the workers have been enfranchised for a longer period than in any other capitalist State, the art of the “spell-binder”—of gushing, emotional, meaningless, wordy rhetoric—has achieved its most exquisite development.


The school, the press, and the platform are used assiduously to foster the “great illusion” of capitalism—that the worker is a free man, possessing freedom of opportunity with every other man, and liberty of contract. The preservation of this illusion is almost a necessity to, and is certainly one of the greatest safeguards of, the present system—and is recognised as such by the clear-sighted agents of the ruling class. The bourgeoisie are compelled to avoid anything that will tend to destroy this illusion. Even the “right to strike,” apparently menaced from time to time by “compulsory arbitration” schemes, is a necessity to the capitalists as well as to the workers—and the more far-seeing members of the employing class well know it. If ever the capitalists, in the height of fear and folly, endeavour to force the proletariat, as a class, to labour by law, and thus to thrust them into a legally recognised worker’s “status,” then indeed their days of power will be numbered.

For the same reason we may regard the enfranchisement of the workers, once established, as a necessity for the continued existence of the system. The ideology of the proletariat, flowing, as we have seen, from the relations of production, makes it inevitable. Engels says :

“The highest form of the State, the democratic republic, knows officially nothing of property distinctions. It is that form of the State which, under modern conditions of society, becomes more and more an unavoidable necessity. The last decisive struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie can only be fought out under this State form” (“Origin of the Family,” p. 210).

But we must not, of course, overlook the fact that the capitalist system and its State forms are still in process of development, and that there exists to-day in concrete reality a number of capitalist societies, each with a different history and each showing minor traits peculiar to itself. In Europe nearly every State contains vestigial institutions left over from Feudalism which affect its activities to a greater or less degree. More important, however, is the fact that capitalist production has by no means completely eliminated petty industry, and, in particular, wherever the peasantry are numerically very strong, as in Spain, France, and Italy, democratic forms can at least be temporarily suspended without immediate injury to the ruling class. Were the majority of the Italian population, for instance, proletarians, it is certain that the Fascisti reaction would have been much more hazardous, if not impossible.

The necessity of the Parliamentary State, with an enfranchised working class, where capitalism is highly developed and the industrial proletariat strong, was vividly demonstrated after the collapse of the German Empire in 1918, when, amid an unprecedented political crisis, when larger masses of workers were agitated and organised for revolt than probably at any other time in capitalist history, the bourgeoisie were compelled to set up the most democratic republican constitution in the world, with male and female suffrage over the age of twenty, proportional representation, and the referendum.

The State, however, of no matter what period or what form—monarchic, oligarchic, or parliamentary—remains in essence the same. It has one function, and one essential function alone—the preservation of the property of the exploiting class, and, accordinglv, the suppression of the exploited. Throughout the history of capitalism the State has served as the instrument of the bourgeoisie. The slaughter of the Communards of Paris, the bloody suppression of strikes all over the world, from Homestead to Featherstone, Colorado to Johannesburg, are evidence that it has served right well its historic function.

The capitalist class dominate society to-day because they control the public forces of coercion. But, unlike the ruling classes of other ages, this control does not arise from the fact that they themselves are the essential part of those forces. The bourgeoisie are not, and never have been, a military class. They, unlike their predecessors at the helm of State, are not only economically, but politically and militarily, entirely dependent upon the working masses. The workers make up almost in entirety the armed forces, and the workers, through the political machinery and through their bourgeois ideas, place these forces in the hands of their oppressors. The capitalists rule the immense majority of society because that Immense majority sanctions their rule. The slave and the serf knew they were enslaved and exploited; the wage-worker does not. The economic relations of modern production serve to disguise the fact of exploitation, and, furthermore, tend to generate that widespread individualism and the illusion of freedom that facilitates the inculcation of ideas and opinions favourable to bourgeois rule.

As Engels says :

“The possessing class rule directly through universal suffrage. For so long as the oppressed class, in this case the proletariat, is not ripe for its economic emancipation, just so long will its majority regard the existing order of society as the only one possible” (“Origin of the Family,” p. 210).

And when will the proletariat be “ripe for its emancipation”— except just when they realise that they require emancipating and understand the facts of their exploitation? Not when they begin to know that there is something rotten in the state of capitalism—for they know that now—but when they realise the cause of that rottenness. Then, when they grasp the truth that the evils of capitalism are inherent and inevitable, not accidental and curable, will they set about its destruction and the inauguration of a Socialist society in which the producers will control production and the distribution of its product. This transformation of attitude towards the system will involve, necessarily, the shattering of the illusion of “freedom,” and the replacement of economic individualism by a realisation of the possibilities of social ownership.

The essential process that must precede the proletarian revolution is the preparation and education of the workers for their revolutionary task. By “education” we mean, primarily, the education flowing from observation and reasoning—the instruction of experience. To-day Socialists as a body are largely students who have acquired their mental outlook on society to a great extent by books and lectures—secondhand, so to speak. So long as the simple elements of Socialist thought generally necessitate this kind of preparation, the Socialist movement is in its early, almost embryonic, stage. Not until the basic proposition of Socialist theory takes root in the minds of masses of men because they are the inescapable inferences from the facts of social life, provide the obvious solution for the pressing, immediate problems of the social situation, and are so self-evident that no counter-propaganda can efface them—not until then can we consider that the movement has reached maturity.

There is evidence that capitalism has yet a considerable future before it; a future of intensive exploitation of the yet untouched areas of the earth; a future of economic centralisation crushing out the last effective remnants of individualism; a future of imperialism and war, of industrial and political anarchy without parallel; a future in which the workers will be hammered and battered into a recognition of social realities.

But alongside the education of experience and practice will go also the education in theoretical principles and tactics born of the conception of history we owe so greatly to Marx. The first form will provide the necessary groundwork of class-consciousness; the second, the essential guidance to a policy avoiding the pitfalls and errors that beset a revolutionary class groping its way amid endless problems along the path towards emancipation.

When the “knell of capitalist private property sounds” and the workers are massed in their might to overwhelm the puny masqueraders—fossil guardians of order and civilisation—they will move with a resolute intention that nothing can frustrate, win the powers of society from the paralysed hands of the parasites of property, and, with confidence born of knowledge, forged in struggle, build up on the basis of man’s conquests over nature the Co-operative Commonwealth.


(Socialist Standard, October 1925)

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