1920s >> 1926 >> no-262-june-1926

Letter: Socialism and Materialism

 A Labour M.P.’s Criticism and our Answer.

To the Editor of The Socialist Standard.

I am aware that members of the S.P.G.B. are not likely to give me a great deal of credit for political sincerity, but I am a regular reader of the “Socialist Standard,” and I appreciate the quality, invariably good, of its contents. Perhaps there is more in common with us than might be thought, for I, too, am disgusted when I am not amazed at the puerilities and futilities which pass for Socialist thought inside as well as outside the House of Commons.

You may he interested in some ideas suggested by your article on materialism. You state that your attitude “frankly rejects any attempt to explain society in terms of ‘ideals,’ whether Christian or otherwise,” and that the conditions under which livelihood is obtained “determine, in the long run, the form taken by ideals of every kind.” May I ask what school of opinion worthy of account attempts to explain society in terms of ideals or denies that material conditions, even if not always the bare economic, determine the form taken by ideals?

At the risk of being charged with “metaphysical hairsplitting,”—I would say that words like those underlined make all the difference to the argument. Those of us who interpret economic determinism in the inhibitive sense that “getting a livelihood” predominantly determines the channel of expression, rather than the causative, i.e., that it creates its own reflex of art and religion, fully admit all that is really conveyed in the words I have quoted. The real difference of opinion seems to be in this: on the one side it is asserted that ideas (ideals) are produced by economic conditions, on the other that certain human qualities are more fundamental than any shaping process, economic or otherwise, and cannot be ignored in the attempted explanation of human history. For instance, it may be that current fiction in handling the love-motive reflects capitalism in a characteristically tainted and hypocritical way, but who, with any knowledge of world literature, would say that capitalism “produced” love—any kind of love? Here, to put things at their lowest, is a great physical fact that is at the very basis of life, and to say that it plays a part essentially subordinate to private property, or that ideas do not spring out of all that love has ever meant in the world, appears to me a narrow and barren doctrine.

Another point. You say that “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.” Surely, “number one” is here a most unfortunate expression ! Not only does the article I am, so far, criticising emphasise the historical importance of association to avoid “annihilation,” but it declares individualism to be a bankrupt creed and affirms “class,” in action and consciousness, as the basis of Socialism. For the life of me I fail to understand why the substitution of “working-class” (three-fourths and more of mankind) for “humanity” lowers or effaces all ethical content in the idea of common good. It is all very well to say that Socialism is, primarily, a question of economic advantage to the working-class and that only the organisation of the working-class can achieve that advantage. All this is true. But, to me or to anyone else, the working-class is an impersonal abstraction.

I am a member of the working-class (or if I am not the man you argue with is, so don’t boggle over my £400 a year, which, after all and counting incidental expenses, isn’t worth the wage of a reasonably-paid mechanic) and would gain by Socialism. All the same, not agreeing with the l.L.P. that we can get “Socialism in our time” by magic, whether the working-class understand it or not, I do not expect to get out of Socialism in a material sense as much as I have put into it—or, shall we say, as much as I have thought I was putting into it. Not being a fool, I never did. Do you rule out of account everyone who does not find in Socialism an appeal, save in what is strictly an emotional though not necessarily unintelligent sense, to “number one”? I put this point in a personal way because I am the “number one” referred to, of course, and in so doing I am putting the case of hundreds of “number ones” who have a habit of preferring brass-tacks to metaphysics, however materialistic. As a matter of practical common-sense, what becomes of ‘‘class” if you discount idealism?

In conclusion, may I put the view that to say unkind things about philosophy does not alter the fact that we all provide ourselves with a philosophy of life, if it is only materialism. There is no need to sneer at what is, after all, formal criticism of these individual philosophies. Personally, I think that in the last quarter of a century science itself has made an extraordinary difference to the philosophy of its own materialism and that you obstinately cling to an obsolete metaphysic and to conceptions and terms which no longer hold water. But that is another question—perhaps for another time.

F. Montague, M.P.

Reply to F. Montague.

The article in question which appeared in the April issue of the Socialist Standard, sought to present in a brief and simple form the practical aspect of the theory of historical materialism as formulated by Marx and Engels. Mr. Montague appears to have a grievance because the choice of words therein used left little loophole for his disagreement. He is so overcome by its relentless logic that he despairingly asks, “What school of opinion worthy of account attempts to explain society in terms of ideals, etc.?” He appears to have forgotten that the whole of the idealistic school of thought makes the attempt, not merely with reference to society, but to the universe at large. From Plato to Hegel man’s being is explained by his consciousness rather than his consciousness by his being.

Mr. Montague next draws a distinction between what he calls the inhibitive and the causative senses of interpreting “economic determinism.” This distinction, however, is only valid if he insists upon using the words “cause” and “create” in a metaphysical or absolute sense. Reversing his own question, what school of opinion worthy of account does this? Certainly not that of Marx and Engels, whose followers in this connection we claim to be. When we say that a given set of economic relations give rise to a particular form of art or religion, etc., we do not thereby imply that art or religion are “created” by conditions out of nothing, as it were. The problem as seen by Marx and Engels was how to account for the various forms taken by human society in all its aspects, and the solution for them lay in economic development, i.e., the constant change and growth in the tools of production and the relations of men in connection therewith. They made no attempt to discover some ultimate element in the human make-up to which everything could be referred. On the contrary, like Darwin in the realm of biology, they sought for an efficient, not a final, cause operating in human history.

Mr. Montague asserts that “certain human qualities are more fundamental than any shaping process, economic or otherwise.” This is probably intended to be taken seriously, yet five seconds’ reflection should show its absurdity. Has Mr. Montague any knowledge of human beings existing apart from a shaping process? If not then how can their qualities be more fundamental than the environment to which they are related and in which they are inextricably involved ?

Mr. Montague cites “love” as one of the qualities he refers to. It is no part of our case to show that capitalism has “produced” love; but if Mr. Montague denies that this “great physical fact . . . plays a part essentially subordinate to private property” in history, perhaps he will give us his explanation of the origin and development of monogamy and prostitution. The sexual and domestic relationships of modern society obviously take their form from its economic basis.

Our critic next tears a phrase from its context and treats it as though it had been advanced as a statement of an eternal truth; and endeavours to set it in contradiction to the general tenor of the article. It takes a philosopher to be blind to the obvious. The Socialist, living under capitalism, is under the painful necessity of acquiring, by hook or crook, a certain amount of money in order to exist. In this he does not differ from his fellow slaves; but this in no way alters the fact that his only hope of improvement lies in Socialism, which necessitates association, and herein lies the only rational explanation for his activities as a Socialist. His motives, of course, are not exclusively economic; but it is from a study of conditions, and not from introspection upon his motives, that he derives the conception of Socialism. With Mr. Montague’s personal motives we have no concern.

“What becomes of class,” we are asked, “if you discount idealism?” What becomes of idealism, Mr. Montague, if you admit the class struggle as the basis of Socialism and call upon the workers to organise upon that basis? Do not material interests form the bond of unity between the members of a class? Are our notions concerning these interests any clearer because we describe them as the demands of “ impersonal abstractions ” (to use our critic’s phrase) such as “justice ” or “humanity? ” Exploiting classes throughout history have used such war-cries to beguile their slaves and to flatter their own self-esteem; but to the workers, seeking emancipation, illusions are worse than useless.

Mr. Montague concludes with some accusations, proof of which he wisely defers—to another time !

Since writing the above a copy of the May issue of the “Social Democrat” has come to hand. It contains an article by the Editor (Mr. Montague) on “Is philosophy any use? ” presenting similar views to those above dealt with, but this time including the “meat” which is obviously lacking in his “criticism.” In his concluding paragraph he says, “ Religion is a matter for the individual. ”

Here we have the matter in a nutshell. Mr. Montague is, of course, merely reiterating the position taken up long ago by the S.D.F., a position based upon “election expediency” (to quote Mr. Belfort Bax, another Social Democrat) which allows its members to angle for Christian votes.

In the same issue appears an article from Sir Henry Slesser, the democratic gentleman who so kindly assumed office, under the late-lamented Labour Government, without having been elected. He contends that the root of the social problem is the avariciousness of the individual. Well may he describe himself as a “mediaeval Socialist”! The summit of his cheek, however, is probably contained in his statement that his views are “more opposed to the assumptions of modern plutocracy and commercialism than those of the most doctrinaire Marxian.” When Sir Henry was seeking election in 1923 the workers were asked to “Vote for Slesser and Free Trade” ! These be your friends, O Montague !

Editorial Committee