1920s >> 1926 >> no-263-july-1926

Socialism and Materialism


The Editor, Socialist Standard.

Sir,—I am obliged for your interesting reply to my letter. Perhaps you are able to find room for the following further observations.
You state that the whole of the idealistic school attempts to explain society in terms of ideals. In the absolute sense this is true, and I am convicted of using a careless phrase. But the unconscious dualism of the materialist is revealed clearly in the sentence, “from Plato to Hegel man’s being is explained by his consciousness rather than his consciousness by his being” Except as a doctrine of super­natural implications, I do not understand what can be meant by “consciousness” and “being” considered as separate enti­ties. I certainly do not attempt to explain either by the other, for both are part of the same evolutionary fact.
You ask, “How can the qualities of human beings be more fundamental than the environment to which they are related and in which they are inextricably in­volved?” Agreed. But when you speak of environment you speak of something bigger than economics and something which is not exclusively external. Strictly speaking, embryological facts are as much environ­ mental as any other. I am aware of the ambiguity of the word “fundamental,” and I use the word only in the sense that a larger category of events may include smaller ones. Heredity cannot be ruled out. And you cannot rule out the intel­lectual history of the race in accounting for the culture of a period.
“The only hope of improvement for a wage-slave is in Socialism.” That depends upon the wage-slave. He may have ability, courage and no conscience. He may then become a capitalist jackal, a scab, or a “labour leader,” and would do so in strict, conformity with a philosophy which makes man’s “being” his belly. And it would be, to say the least, foolish to call him names if there is no ethical standard by which to judge conduct and only the stom­ach to explain it. The unfortunate feature of the whole situation is that the process leaves you with the incompetents on your hands.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am putting a case and offering you an explana­tion of a fact to which you so frequently draw attention—the existence of a whole tribe of working-class misleaders. These, if they are as venal as you say they are, seem to have absorbed non-moralism ex­ceedingly well.
You have not answered my question, “What becomes of ‘class’ if you discount idealism?” Material interests are first of all personal interests; they only become class interests when combination offers a reasonable prospective of collective advant­age. The prospect of Socialism is some­ what uncertain—not to put top fine a point on it. I don’t fancy the odds at present, and I am not prepared to invest in the apathy and folly of my class. Any one of us is a hopeless dud if he could not have made his personal circumstances more secure, to say the least, had he never touched Social­ism. The Socialist movement as yet calls for considerable sacrifice, and to put it in order you offer a post-dated cheque — or rather, an undated one, on the bank of revolution !
No wonder you say you have no concern with my personal motives, which, in the main, are much like other people’s. If you had concern with motives you would understand the psychology of class better. All that comes out of purely material motives even our way (if it is in any sense your way or mine) is “never mind what, but get it quick—we can’t wait.” Which is perfectly natural, if you “discount idealism.” Why should anyone ignore any old fleshpots that might be knocking about for the sake of “this day, next day, some­ time, never,” in the light of the progress of the S.P.G.B. or even the S.D.F? Come, sir, you must all be high-souled philanthro­pists without knowing it.
In practical fact, “class-consciousness” is only “brotherhood of man,” minus the exploiting classes. There is as much cant about one as the other. As for capitalists exploiting “war-cries,” they would prosti­tute anything and do nearly everything. All the more reason why we should insist upon the validity of certain “abstractions.”
I am asked to explain the origin and de­velopment of monogamy and prostitution if love does not play a part essentially sub­ ordinate to private property. Monogamy is a social custom hardly collateral with capi­talist society or of capitalist origin, and it can be only very doubtfully described as a property reflex. It has nothing to do, in any case, with the subordination or other­wise of love, which is an impulse that ante­ dates primitive communism and is shared by man with all sentient life and perhaps with the mineral kingdom. Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, and a social phenomenon that runs through epochs of economic variations cannot, without gross misuse of language, be said to be “subordinate” to anything but its own passion. Strange you should have placed the two things together. Doesn’t prosti­tution cancel out monogamy, any way ?
In conclusion, if my “friends” had to be exclusively those who think exactly as I think, I should have few “friends.” Why should I object to Sir Henry Slesser airing views that are not mine in the paper I edit? And why the unction of “these be your friends”? Do you not share the “eco­nomic man” theory with all the Liberal gradgrinds and Tory buccaneers whatever?
Yours faithfully,



It is a trifle difficult to take Mr. Monta­gue seriously. He appears to be bent on the time-honoured pastime of setting up Aunt Sallies and knocking them down again. The original article which he attemp­ted to criticise commenced with a reference to a plea by one of his political colleagues for “a new society based upon Christi­anity.” We sought to show that society is based upon economic development and not upon religious beliefs. Unable to show us wrong in this respect, Mr. Montague accuses us of all manner of philosophical errors which he equally fails to prove.

This time it is “unconscious dualism” of which we are alleged to be guilty because, forsooth, we distinguish, in the abstract , between man’s “consciousness” and his “being.” Does not man’s being include his consciousness, as the greater includes the less, or is his consciousness all-embracing and exhaustive? De we judge an individual simply by what he thinks of himself? Must we accept every ruling class at its own valuation ? These questions only need to be asked to illustrate the absurdity of the idealist position. But is Mr. Montague an idealist? In his first letter (June issue) he asserted “that certain human qualities are more fundamental than any shaping process, economic or otherwise.” Now he “agrees” that they are not ! No wonder he does “not attempt to explain either by the other !”

This does not prevent him, however, from persisting in regarding the individual and his “personal motives” as the all-important factor in social development. He may pay lip-service to what he calls “economic de­terminism” but he evidently does not under­stand it. For instance, he refers to a whole tribe of working-class misleaders and appears to attribute their position to their “ability,” “courage,” and lack of “con­science,” instead of to the economic pres­sure arising from the conditions of capitalist society.

According to Mr. Montague, the bulk of the working-class are “hopeless duds,” see­ing that, although they have not “touched Socialism,” their “personal circumstances” become increasingly less secure ! “The Socialist movement as yet calls for consider­ able sacrifice !” Capitalism, of course, doesn’t, eh! Mr. Montague?

Our critic imagines that any unscrupulous scoundrel can get the best of modern soci­ety. He appears to be blind to the opera­tion of the economic factors which care as little for personal motives as do the winds and tides.

“Material interests are first of all personal interests,” he says, but fails to ex­plain how any person can exist apart from some class in a class-society.

“Class-consciousness” he regards as a moral term akin to the “brotherhood of man.” He ignores the fact that “minus the exploiting classes,” the term would be meaningless. Class-consciousness implies the conception, not merely of identity, but of antagonism in the economic realm. This antagonism cannot be explained by ethical abstractions, which only serve to confuse the workers’ minds and thus delay the hour of their triumph.

Mr. Montague’s handling of monogamy and prostitution indicates a very shallow knowledge of the subject. Monogamy is more than a social custom. It is a legal institution and, as such, bears the unmistak­able impress of its origin in the private ownership of the means of life. There have been other forms of private property be­ sides that at present obtaining, and we did not suggest that capitalism alone was re­sponsible for the origin and development of this form of sexual relationship. Modern marriage and prostitution in all its forms imply the economic dependence of the woman upon the man. This condition did not exist under the communal arrangements of primitive society, and sexual relations were, as a consequence, of a widely differ­ent character from those which at present prevail. We have not space here to describe them in detail, but Mr. Montague would be well-advised to study Morgan’s “Ancient Society,” and Engel’s “Origin of the Family” before indulging in more random generalisations about “love.” Women sell themselves, in marriage or out of it, because their economic circumstances so determine; and prostitution, so far from “cancelling out” monogamy, supplements it. The capitalist’s legal wife presents him with heirs to his invested wealth. His paramours help him to enjoy that which overflows from the field of investment.

In conclusion, we referred to Sir H. Slesser in order to illustrate our contention that, politically, Mr. Montague keeps strange company for an alleged Socialist, which does not exactly tend to remove our suspicions as to the utility of philosophy. As for the “economic man” theory, we should have credited even a member of the S.D.F. with knowing better!

Ed. Com.

(Socialist Standard, July 1926)

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