1930s >> 1938 >> no-404-april-1938

Letters: Socialism and Equality

Glasgow, W.2.
March 10th, 1938.

Dear Sirs,

If space permits, I would like to make a brief reply to your arguments in the March issue of The Socialist Standard.

Let me say, then, that I entirely disagree with your contention that the failure of equality in colonies, such as Lane’s, does not prove the impracticable character of the system. If the seed is healthy, it should multiply and flourish; if unhealthy, we should expect it to wither and decay. Colonies such as Lane’s, if they were founded upon scientific principles should have proved successful, grown and multiplied, and set an example to the world. We know that under capitalism groups of pioneers have ventured into barren wildernesses and made them into flourishing towns. The seed here was healthy; the seed of equality is definitely not. It withers and decays wherever it is planted.

The S.P.G.B. has frequently asserted that the Russian experiment in equality was bound to fail because the people neither understood nor consciously desired a Socialist system. But no such argument (even if valid in regard to Russia) can be applied to Lane’s experiment in Paraguay. For the people here were all picked Socialists, men who understood Socialism and were convinced that the equalitarian principle was sound. They failed because the system was contrary to human nature, at variance with the strongest human emotions. And if the S.P.G.B. ever obtained a majority for the system in this country it would fail for the same reason.

There is one other point with which I wish to deal —the question of whether men will work and study without material reward, and merely for the joy of exercising their natural faculties. Upon this point considerable confusion exists, but the question, clearly seen, presents no difficulty. As I have said before, there is a kind of labour which is an end in itself and a kind of labour which is a means to an end. The philosopher pursues truth because he loves truth; the miner does not dig coal because he loves coal. Marx did not ask how much he was going to make before he wrote a book. With him, as with many noble pioneers, the labour was its own reward. But this does not prove that in the ordinary humdrum affairs of life men will labour to the utmost merely for the joy of exercising their natural faculties. We are dealing here with two entirely different motives, and these motives are not interchangeable. If everyone could choose the kind of activity that made him happy the question would be easier to deal with, and your argument easier to prove. But most of us do, and will under any conceivable system continue to do, daily tasks which are not to our liking and for which we will demand compensation in the form of material reward!
Yours fraternally,
H. W. Henderson.

Our correspondent argues that the Lane experiment would have succeeded if the “equality” idea is sound, and would have been followed by other such colonies; and that, as it failed, that proves the “equality” idea to be unsound. Our reply is that the failure of such colonies proves that the idea of isolated social experiments is unsound, but leaves the Socialist case untouched. Socialism needs a high development of society’s powers of industrial production on an international basis, plus a majority of Socialists. Even if we accept that the Lane experiment had the Socialists, it lacked the developed powers of production and was an isolated colony, not an international working class movement. The idea “to each according to his needs” requires as its basis a high level of industrial productivity, i.e., the capacity to produce wealth in abundance. It is not sufficient merely that a group of men should have convinced themselves that they believe in it.

On the question of the incentive for work and study, our correspondent makes a distinction between the philosopher seeking truth and the miner hewing coal. He says: “The philosopher pursues truth because he loves truth; the miner does not dig coal because he loves coal.” But need there be any such distinction? The problems of mining and engineering, even the detailed problems with which the individual worker has to deal, are intrinsically just as interesting as the problems facing the philosopher. Capitalism denies to vast numbers of workers the possibility of interesting themselves in these problems, but Socialism would not do so. On the other hand, under Socialism, all kinds of workers will be helped and given greater incentive by the knowledge that their work is for the good of the whole human society of which they are part, and in the welfare of which they share.

Our correspondent would say that Socialism must give special rewards to men with special capacities. We say that Socialism’s task will be to improve the capacity of all, partly by knowledge and training, partly by inspiring them with the realisation that the good of the community is the good of the individual. The men with special capacity will not be found less socially minded than their fellows.

Ed. Comm.