Individualism and social evolution
The channels of propaganda open to the defenders of the present system of society are enormous. Apart from their control of “Education,” with its distortion of history, their Press, with its daily circulation of millions, would enable them—if they had an answer to the Socialist attitude—to cancel any effort the latter could make.
Their inability to keep the workers in the ignorant and docile state that they desire is demonstrated on the one hand by the steady growth of understanding among the working class of their common interest, and the fading of their prejudice against the propaganda of Socialism. And on the other hand by the panic that is exhibited on certain occasions by the Capitalist Class, breaking out in all manner of forms, and giving further evidence of the hopeless case they have to handle.
Their latest attempt to check the growth of working-class enlightenment is the formation of a company, with £20,000 capital, called “The Individualist Bookshop, Ltd.”
The Daily News (15/7/26), in giving particulars of this company, tells us that:
”The object of the company is to provide a London bookshop, where the Individualist as opposed to the Socialist point of view will be expressed in various ways.”
“Only books free from what the promoters consider the unsound economic theories of Socialism; will be sold.”
“It will collect books on economic subjects, written from the Individualist point of view : promote the publication of such books; provide a reference library for the use of students ; establish a circulating library, and organise lectures.”
An “Individualist Bookshop” that is a limited company would make even its founders laugh, if the concern to save their skins did not prevent them seeing the joke.
But apart from the stupid title of this company, with its £20,000 capital, described by Sir Ernest Benn, who is largely responsible for its formation, as a “modest beginning,” let us take a book from the shelf of this peculiar shop, and examine it.
The first point that strikes us is, that before the book could be produced, a written language was necessary, and before this, language could be written it was developed in an oral form. This, articulate speech, commencing with man in his most primitive state, is his earliest effort to lift himself above an individualist and animal existence and become a social being. Speech, which is of necessity social, emphasises the distinction betwen man and the lower forms of life.
During a period of thousands of years, and by the co-operation of unnumbered people, was produced the dialects out of which have grown the modern languages of to-day.
From the spoken to the written word there is again an enormous period of time, extending over thousands of years, from the early savage to the dawn of civilisation. This fact gives us an idea of the countless number of people who contributed to the production of writing from the hieroglyphics to the alphabets now in use.
Another factor needed in the production of this book is the printing press, which has been made possible by inventions which carry us back to savagery. The discovery of the use of fire by the early savage, and later in the next period the production of iron, are inventions which, apart from the influence they had on the state of society in which they were discovered, are still in the twentieth century needed to produce the modern printing machine, which owes its existence to the work, thought, and cooperation of thousands of generations of people.
This simple little book not only represents the accumulation of knowledge through the ages from earliest man to the present day, but is also in the modern sense a social product.
The miners that secure the various minerals, viz., coal, iron, and copper; the lumbermen who fell the trees; the transport workers who convey this material to the mills and factories where other workers await to convert it into the numerous forms needed to produce this “individualist” book, such as the machinery that reduces the giant of the forest into pulp for paper, the circular saw that rips others into planks, the printing press and the tools used for its production, are all necessary to make this book. Then the workers in the building trade erect the factory, and the different branches of the printing industry commence operations.
With this vast army of workers the picture is not complete. The farm labourer, the miller, and the baker; the weaver, and the tailor; the tanner, and the bootmaker are needed to supply this industrial army with food and clothing. We see, therefore, that in the production of a simple article, not only must the individual take part as a social unit in that work, but that each industry is dependent upon many others, a dependence that often extends beyond national boundaries.
Without the accumulated knowledge of the past, and the social activities of the present wage workers, Sir E. Benn and his friends would be climbing among the branches of trees and living their individualist life on nuts and roots.
We have seen that speech was man’s first step forward. This implies the common acceptance of certain sounds to mean certain things. As the language developed, the rules governing it grew and changed in proportion, and now to speak a language we must learn and obey the rules that control it. This is generally accepted, and even the Anarchist falls into line without an ungrammatical curse at the necessity of so doing.
As the rules alter with the development of a language, so with society. The rules and regulations are changed as the methods of producing wealth and the character of its ownership changes, and creates new needs and interests, and makes old laws and customs obsolete.
In their early days the Capitalist Class forced the development of society forward at a rapid pace; institutions that stood in the way were crushed out of existence. The Handicraftman and the Trade Guilds could not survive against the competition of factory production, made possible by the development of machinery and the use of steam power. With these changes the worker lost his individual character as a producer and became a social unit.
The rapid growth of capitalist production with the concentration of capital into fewer hands have forced these concerns beyond their individual control. Nationalisation or joint stock companies managed by a staff of wage slaves takes their place. The average capitalist draws his dividend without knowing anything of the business he owns shares in, and in many cases does not know where his money is invested. By the manipulation on the Stock Exchange he can go to bed owning an interest in one part of the world and wake up to find that interest transferred to another concern thousands of miles away.
While taking no part in production, but owning the wealth that is produced, the Capitalist Class find the task of concealing their useless nature from the workers becomes more difficult. With the distinction between the non-producing owners and the propertyless workers becoming clearer as the system developes, its defenders are alarmed at the growth of the propaganda that points these facts out to the workers and which explains that as their trouble is the lack of the wealth which they produce in abundance, the remedy is to abolish the system which enables this useless class to rob them of the fruits of their labour. This implies a change in the form of ownership from private to common. The conditions are ripe for this change, which can be accomplished when a majority of the workers know what they need and how to get it.
Recognising that the confusion of the working class is one safeguard against the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of Socialism, these defenders of the present system raise the cry of individualism to defend a form of society based on social production, and in which the exploitation of the workers by the capitalist has lost its individual character and become one of class robbery.
For the same reason they welcome confusionists like Ramsay MacDonald, who, speaking at the “Christian Endeavour Convention,” says, “You are fashioning the world into the likeness which is in your soul ” (Daily News, 22/6/1926).
But such nonsense, which would disgrace a village parson, will have no effect on the workers when they know what they fashion neither a world nor a system in either their mind or “soul,” but that the means of wealth production prevailing when the present system of society ends will form the starting-point or foundation in the one that follows. Also that the character of the ownership of the social wealth and the manner in which it is produced determine the nature of the class struggle. And, further, that the political institutions necessary to maintain the present system offers to the modern wage workers the means to end it and establish Socialism.
Securing political power, they will overthrow the Capitalist Class and establish a system of common ownership in harmony with social production.
The Socialist, therefore, while recognising the causes of social development, does not ignore the human factor, but gives it its true value. By this means he avoids the pitfalls of the Utopian, who builds castles in the air or “fashions a world” with his “soul” for a pattern. But, acting in conformity with the knowledge obtained from a correct conception of history, he carries on the class struggle, knowing that this war, fought out by an enlightened working class, must end in their emancipation from the present degrading position of slavery.
(Socialist Standard, October 1926)