Socialism and Materialism
Any person lacking previous knowledge of the subject can hardly fail to be confused by the contradictory pronouncements issued in the name of Socialism regarding the basis of society. A few days ago, for instance, Mr. Robert Young, M.P., speaking at a Brotherhood meeting, pleaded for a “new society based upon Christianity.” This represents the prevailing attitude among the “Socialists” (so-called) of the Labour Party. On the other hand, we find supporters of that Party claiming to be atheists or materialists, and professing to derive their “Socialism” from some abstract ideal of “justice” or “brotherhood.”
The Socialist Party is the only one in which a clear and consistent attitude on this question is to be found. This attitude frankly rejects any attempt to explain society in terms of “ideals,” whether Christian or otherwise. It points out that the necessity of obtaining a livelihood (and not mere opinions or sentiments) is the real foundation of social existence; and that, consequently, the conditions under which that livelihood is obtained determine, in the long run, the form taken by ideals of every kind.
This attitude is, of course, very frequently misunderstood. The average person, accustomed to look at matters metaphysically, jumps to the conclusion that the Socialist is only concerned with filling his belly, as a matter of philosophical principle, and he usually dishes out some would-be serious reflections upon the necessity for “ higher ” things, such as morals, etc. He fails entirely to see that his so-called “higher things,” including morals, are themselves the outcome of a particular set of social conditions which depend in turn upon a certain stage of economic development.
The fact is, of course, that the Socialist has ceased to regard himself as an independent entity, in some way separate from the society of which he forms a molecule. He looks at the whole matter from the standpoint of the class to which he (as a rule) belongs, i.e., the working class. Even when this is pointed out, however, the bourgeois-minded objector invariably protests against what he calls “class-selfishness”; as though this phenomenon was the cause instead of the effect of existing conditions.
The class-war is the basis of the Socialist movement. Does that mean that the Socialist creates the class-war? On the contrary, the Socialist merely perceives an already existing fact (to which his fellow-slave is either wholly or partially blind), and further realises that this war can terminate in only one way, i.e., the emancipation of the workers through the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of the common ownership of the means of life.
Thus, according to the Socialist, the ownership of the means of life is the central, basic factor in the matter, not some fantastic dream of a perfect social state which merely reflects the imperfections of that which exists at present. But why must the means of life be commonly owned? Whence arises this idea? Does it fall from the clouds? By no means! It is the logically inevitable product of the stage of development reached by those means of life, or, in other words, the instruments of production and distribution of wealth. It is technical advance, not mere speculation, which necessitates social change.
Still our opponent does not understand us. “Under your proposal,” he protests, “men and women will be exclusively greedy unless some sound ethical instruction is given to them.” Well, the answer is simple. We have had centuries of ethical instruction of various kinds. The ancient Greek philosophers ransacked their imaginations in vain for some ideal principle to inculcate into the minds of their followers which would lead to individual happiness and social harmony. The Christian Fathers saw in preparation for the hereafter the surest guide to the elimination of the pressing desires of the here and now. With what success? Greed is a more firmly entrenched social element than ever. Quite irrespective of what their opinions may be, men and women are compelled to look after “number one” ; and failure to do this spells annihilation.
Again, this is the result, not of philosophy but of the conditions arising from the private property basis of society. Frankly egotistic philosophies have, of course, been advanced, especially during the nineteenth century, but these are the outcome of the conditions rather than the cause of men’s attitude towards one another. Human history is, in fact, eloquent upon the poverty of philosophy. The mission of the Socialist is not merely to explain the world, but to change it. This, however, demands the practical application of the scientific method to the economic problem.
This problem may be stated thus. Why is it that, with greater powers of production than have ever existed in human history, numerous people exist in want, and that, broadly, the mass of the population who produce wealth receive in return a smaller proportion of that wealth than ever before? This problem cannot be solved by chloroform, whether administered by Tory Prime Ministers or Labour M.P.s. Christianity and the “spirit of goodwill” can avail us nothing. Their admonitions are addressed to the individual and ignore the social forces of which he is the product. They seek to mould his conduct, it is true, but in a reactionary direction. Only by understanding economic development and consciously co-operating with its established tendencies can we rise above it, thus mastering instead of being enslaved by it.
The politicians of all parties outside the Socialist Party trade upon the economic ignorance of the mass of the workers, but that does not prevent them from stimulating their blind greed. Every proposal which appears in their election addresses is calculated to obtain the support of those who do not realise the futility of such measures from the standpoint of working-class interests. Protection, Free Trade, Land Taxation, Nationalisation, the Capital Levy! “What have these measures to do with ethics?” we may ask. They are merely the means by which sections of the master-class seek both to serve their own interests and hoodwink their slaves. Some high-sounding phrase such as the “public interest” or the “welfare of the community” is used to camouflage their motives and blind the workers, who vainly look for some material gain from these measures.
The Socialist, therefore, has no need to apologise for appealing to the workers to use their intelligence in their own material interests. Our moralising masters have looked after theirs long enough. From the dawn of history society has rested upon the exploitation of the workers. This was inevitable so long as the limited powers of production only allowed of comfort and luxury for a few. To-day, however, those powers are so great that there is no longer any reason why anyone should lack all that is necessary to complete health and leisure for self-development. Our masters pretend to believe in sacrifice. Let them set us an example by forfeiting the privilege of living on our backs. We cannot sacrifice that which is not ours. Let the workers beware, however, from relying on the sincerity of their exploiters.
The increase in the powers of production is, of course, no miracle. It has been accomplished only by the application of science to industry, involving the co-operation of masses of workers on an unprecedented scale. From puny individual instruments such as the spade and hoe, we have advanced to the giant tractor-plough, which can only exist because millions of workers are busy in forges and mills throughout the world. And what applies to one industry applies to all that are of general importance. Here and there, maybe, technical difficulties or the existence of a cheaper supply of labour retard progress on mechanical lines, but the essential fact remains that, for society as a whole, the methods of industry have been revolutionised during the past century and a half.
The new powers of production, social though they are in character, remain in the hands of a class of private owners, who perform no useful function in return. Their only concern is to reap the fruits of the labours of society which are periodically disorganised through the conflict in the ranks of the parasites. For the so-called struggle for existence is a struggle not between individuals as such but between competing masses of capital, of which individuals are but the legal appendages. The survival of the fittest has nothing to do with the personal qualities of the capitalist who survives. It is merely the survival of the more efficient instruments of production of which he is the fortunate possessor. The ruined capitalist occasionally ends his existence as an individual upon his descent into the proletariat, but more frequently he re-adapts himself to his changed environment in which he finds an entirely different form of struggle in progress.
Among the workers the problem of the individual is not how to exploit, but how to secure the opportunity to be exploited; not how to amass wealthy but rather how to_find someone who is willing to purchase one’s power to produce it. The fruits of victory for the individual capitalist are more opportunities for ease and luxury than he can personally utilise. A successful hunt for a job, however, spells for the worker merely a ceaseless round of toil, for a wage which buys the bare necessities of existence.
For the workers, therefore, individualism is a bankrupt creed. They are constantly involved in a struggle against the effects of the whole system of private property. In this struggle the inexorable logic of facts convinced them of the necessity of co-operation long before the Socialist arrived upon the scene. The Trade Unions, for instance, originated, not from mere theorising, but from the practical pressure of events in the industrial sphere. They were the inevitable offspring of the industrial revolution. For a time they were successful in lessening the suffering of the workers, but the limits of their powers were soon reached, and to-day it is evident that a wider and deeper mode of co-operation between the workers is necessary to effect any improvement in their condition. The concentration of capital and the constant advance of machine industry makes anything less than class organisation practically futile.
Such organisation, however, involves the clear and definite object of expropriation of the possessing class. So long as production is carried on for profit, so long will the workers endure the effects of the ensuing anarchy in society. Every technical advance to-day is made as a result of competition for profit at the workers’ expense. Every successful attempt at obtaining a higher wage-rate thus merely stimulates the scrapping of obsolete methods of robbing the workers, the increase of the unemployed, the intensification of the struggle for jobs, greater speeding up and insecurity.
The social character of the means of production indicates the solution, i.e., social ownership of those means, combined with production, for the use of all without distinction of race or sex. The conduct of production and distribution in accordance with a social plan will give mankind for the first time the conscious control of their means of living. Henceforward waste an dstagnation will be eliminated for the benefit of all. The resources of the world are barely scratched. Whole continents cry out for development, but capitalism cannot respond. To attempt to do so merely intensifies the antagonisms within itself. The quest for new markets and sources of raw material is speedily followed by war, resulting in widespread ruin and reaction. The international co-operation of the working class alone can make peaceful progress possible.
The recognition of the above facts is the materialism to which Socialists plead guilty. Only when the satisfaction of purely animal wants is definitely secured to all will the opportunity arise for the universal cultivation of distinctively human and social qualities. By conditions which allow for individual development and expression, and not by moral and legal repression, will social harmony be obtained.