1940s >> 1945 >> no-486-february-1945

Pamphlet Review: Old Fallacies Re-Furbished: Is Socialist Propaganda Futile?

Low, the cartoonist, has two blank-faced creatures who constantly appear in his attacks on reaction, whom he calls “S’no use” and “T’aint necessary.” If we may elaborate a little, they stand for all the disbelief in the practicability and desirability of trying to change the world for the better. It is obvious how these two frauds have served the purpose of the ruling class ever since there was a ruling class. What is more surprising is that they early made their entry into the ranks of large sections of the political Labour movement in the shape of arguments that it isn’t possible for the workers to learn how to achieve their own emancipation; and not necessary anyway because inspired leaders would do it for them. Of course, they did not have it all their own way. Marx never doubted that the emancipation of the workers must be the work of the workers themselves, and before him William Lovett and others in the London Working Men’s Association (1836) firmly held that the workers could and must trust in themselves, not in leaders. Nevertheless, the other view has persisted, though with some changes of form.The early Fabians and the late J. R. MacDonald hardly troubled to hide their contempt for the intelligence and capacity of the working class. Hence the Fabians’ lack of concern with making Socialists and the later admiration for all the dictators and contempt for democracy proclaimed by G. B. Shaw.

J. R. MacDonald, in his long forgotten confession of faith, “A Rock Ahead,” published in “To-day” (March, 1887) gave the doctrine a slightly different twist. He not only despised but also feared those whom he called the “rude and uncultivated masses.” He held that “Labour as such is simply useless for freeing itself”; but he was afraid that the workers might try. The revolution, he wrote, would “be directed from the study” by the “comparatively well-to-do,” and the thing to be feared was the “explosive” force of the workers. “We may have to use them or we may not,” he wrote, “but should the worst befall, their destructive power will be skilfully directed; it will not cause ruin but will clear a way; it will be the instrument, but not the life; the tool, but not the designer.” In MacDonald’s eyes Socialism was a matter of “intellectual development,” and the “ignorant labourer” cannot understand it, therefore the thing to do was to confine propaganda to the intellectual minority, the few who are “thoughtful and reasonable.”

Lenin and the Communists also had this concept, though with the difference that they did not fear the uprising of the non-Socialist masses. They sought to encourage it and proposed to capture the leadership and thus gain power. But still there was the contempt for the workers’ understanding. Lenin said: “If Socialism can only be realised when the intellectual development of all the people permits it, then we shall not see Socialism for at least 500 years.” (“Ten Days that Shook the World,” John Reed, page 303.) It should, however, be noticed that Lenin attributed the workers’ backwardness to lack of education under capitalism, not to an innate incapacity. It has remained for later writers to go that far.

Achille Loria, the Italian economist and self-styled Socialist, held that the final stages of revolution always had been and always would be effected through the cooperation of “disgruntled intellectuals,” otherwise revolution was foredoomed to failure. (See “Karl Marx.” by Loria. Foreword by E. and C. Paul, pages 22 and 28.)

Eden and Cedar Paul, who at one time were active and influential in the Communist movement, dissented from Loria’s view, at least at first. They thought that in modern times “independent working-class education” had changed the situation. They wrote “The workers of the day after to-morrow need not put their trust in the frail reed of the support of the intellectuals. Once more we raise the Marxist slogan and cry. ‘The emancipation of the workers must be the work of the workers themselves.’ ” (Page 30.)

Then they seem to have changed their opinion, for the “Plebs” “Outline of Psychology” (1923) quotes them as writing that the theory of democracy “is based upon the belief that reason is the main motive force of human action, and that men in the mass are, if properly educated, always prepared to accept programmes by reason of their justice, rationality and wisdom. It is a captivating theory . . . and the only serious objection to it is that it is not true. . . .” (Page 96.) They went on to explain that the average man is not guided by rational considerations but by “subconscious urges”; this despite their proclaimed belief in the efficacy of “independent working class education.”

The writers of the “Plebs” Outline accepted and elaborated the argument. On the ground that the intelligence of human beings ranges through various levels from idiots and imbeciles up to “rare creative geniuses in science, art, and public administration,” they affirmed: “There is little hope that the majority of the individuals in any nation, class or group will be capable, when a crisis arises, of intelligently deciding what is the best course of action—even when their instincts and unconscious impulses urge them towards action of some kind.” They instanced as proof of this the alleged fact that in all crises “even where there is comparative unanimity as to aim (as in the late war) the dictatorship of a small minority is essential,” and held that it is confirmed by “the experience of every proletarian propagandist when trying to influence his mates.” (In passing, one may wonder why the individuals who hold such views about others always have no difficulty in excepting themselves from what they would appear to be claiming as a characteristic of all human beings.)

All those mentioned above, from Shaw and MacDonald to the “Plebs,” have hastened to accept the necessity for “leaders” to shepherd the workers to their emancipation. “S’no use” for the workers to try to understand Socialism, it is beyond their capacity; but luckily for them “T’aint necessary,” for here we are ready to provide what they lack of “mental capacity” and “knowledge bearing upon the question at issue.” (“Plebs,” page 137.)

Almost alone among the parties the S.P.G.B. has consistently combatted those views. Are we right in doing so? Can the majority of the workers understand our case when it is presented to them? Is our slow progress due to some innate incapacity or—as we have always contended—is it due to capitalist propaganda and to the fact that our means of spreading Socialist knowledge are restricted by our small resources and can only grow gradually? Are those people right who contend that the workers never will understand and that unless Socialism can be achieved without working class understanding, it will never be achieved at all?

The latest contribution to the “leadership ” argument is a pamphlet, “Science, Politics and the Masses,” by G. R. Tatham (Social Science Association, price 6d.). The first part discusses the recent tendency for scientists to interest themselves in politics; but only in order to lead up to the point that whether they do or not, it is useless for anyone to go on accepting the assumption that the mass of the people are capable of “scientific and political understanding.”

Although a number of writers on psychology are quoted to support the view, the pamphlet adds little to the crudely stated opinions of MacDonald nearly 60 years ago, or to the opinions of the “Plebs” writers in 1923. What it does is to introduce us to “Walsby’s discovery of the Demos and to his analysis of its structure and development.” (However, no proof is given in the pamphlet of Walsby’s theory.) The theory is that the population are grouped in “ideological layers” each representing a definite level of culture and political outlook. The individuals in the lower layers (constituting the great majority) have little or no capacity for understanding a logical case, while the smaller numbers in the top layers have a more logical outlook. Tatham writes: “. . . the more logical the outlook, the fewer the people holding it ” (page 12). As we may put it, “The higher you go, the fewer.”

We are told that the members of the “Progressive” political bodies are drawn from the top layers and therefore it is a waste of time for them to go on appealing to the illogical masses “with the same arguments and upon the same subject-matter which was instrumental in their own conversion” (page 14).

“Progressive” is not defined in the pamphlet though it appears to include all layers above the Conservatives, nor is it stated that the aim of the writer is Socialism. We are, however, told that the “more progressive political organisations are largely agreed as to the direction that economic reorganisation must take ” and reference is made to the “proposed economic change” but again it is not defined. This is important, for we cannot conceive what can be the economic change about which Socialists are in agreement with Liberals, Communists and other self-styled “progressives.”

Elsewhere (page 15) Tatham tells us that “there will always be, so long as civilisation endures, conservative, liberal, socialist, communist, etc., levels of social and political understanding,” and (pages 13-14) that “those people sometimes termed ‘the politically unconscious’—i.e., whose interest in social and political matters is largely emotional —must at all times be in a considerable majority.” If therefore the economic change that Tatham looks to is Socialism, we are asked to believe that Socialism will be achieved and will function with a majority of the population still “politically unconscious” and not interested in it. Moreover, whatever the change he envisages, he sees that his argument implies dictatorship, for he asks, “How then are we to have the proposed change and still retain the political democracy we now have?” (Page 16.)

Tatham answers the question but in a very vague way. He tells us that a few (not all) of the individuals in the top layers will make a specialised study of the nature of the political and ideological field (page 15), and that we can then look forward “to the application of scientific method . . . to the social mind, for the scientific control (i.e., self-control) of human nature” (page 16). Now what exactly does this mean? If the masses cannot understand a logical case and only a few of the few in the top layers are able to make the special study referred to, in what way can the promised application of scientific method to the social mind be described as “self control”? Does it not mean what MacDonald meant in 1887, that the cultured few should either do without the “rude and uncultivated masses” or act as the “designer” using them as “the tool”?

Against all of the advocates of clever leaders using stupid masses stands the S.P.G.B. At the formation of the Party it was frankly recognised that knowledge is necessary and that the workers as a whole lacked knowledge—but not the capacity to understand and learn. Therefore the S.P.G.B. accepted that progress must lie slow, there could be no short cuts. In the Socialist Standard for February 1905 appeared the following typical declaration: —

The ignorance of the workers in the past has enabled the capitalists to possess themselves of the political machine. The workers all unwittingly have made the rod that is now applied to their backs. But what working class ignorance has done, working class enlightenment can undo. . . . It is absolutely necessary that the workers shall see every step of the way clearly before they take it. Which may mean a slow advance, but it will certainly mean a sure advance.”

When Freud and others are quoted to try to prove that only a tiny minority can ever understand logical case on social and political problems we are not impressed. Are these authorities themselves among the logical minority? If so, they ought, according to Tatham, to have slipped straight into the “progressive” political party appropriate to their layer, and ought not to have remained anti-Socialist, as many of them have. Again, if the irrationality of the majority resides in the nature of human beings as such, why does it not hold good for the select few? Are they not human beings too? And if it does not reside in the nature of human beings as such, why cannot the majority, through education, attain the degree of logical understanding already attained by the minority? In spite of the Plebs-—Tatham view of the poor results of propaganda, we of the S.P.G.B. know of no reason why other workers should not come to understand what we have come to understand. Some may develop more slowly than others, but logical understanding and action are not beyond the capacity of the majority. What we are up against is not an innate incapacity to understand, but the massive and tireless machinery of capitalist propaganda, including the red herrings of the Tatham kind, but our efforts—small at present—are aided by the constant pressure of capitalism on the working class. No capitalist propaganda can for ever prevent the workers from becoming passionately interested in the failure of the capitalist system and the need to find a way out by their own efforts.

If evidence is needed to show that the workers do possess capacity to understand and act—even if at present it is in a limited sphere—their achievement in building up the trade union movement provides that evidence. What has been done on the industrial field and much more will not in the long run be beyond working class capacity on the political field. It is bound to be a slow process, but does anyone know a quicker one? What has happened to all the short cuts promised by the Fabians, MacDonald, Lenin, the “Plebs,” etc.?

Tatham and Walsby’s rehash of old theory leaves us unmoved. The slight refinements they introduce leave the theory just as unconvincing and suspect as it always was. The one difference between Lenin and this latest variation (i.e., that the workers will never understand) is not a step forward but a step back. As for the “layers” (very much like the theory propounded in 1923 by the “Plebs” group), one flaw in the argument is that the problem before us is not why does Socialist propaganda make no progress, for it obviously does make progress, though slowly. Yet surely, according to the “layer” theory. Socialist propaganda ought at its inception to have made a fairly rapid appeal to all the individuals in the appropriate layer and should then have ceased to make headway, except to the extent that the field was enlarged by individuals of a new generation in that layer. If it were true that Socialist propaganda cannot spread outside a small circle, one wonders why the capitalist class have devoted such enormous efforts to preventing it from spreading.

Again, how does the theory square with the class interests behind political parties? Is the almost universal opposition which the capitalists show towards Socialism proof that they are all in the lower layers and unable to understand a logical case? Or is not the capitalist who supports the Tory Party (“the stupid party,” as its opponents often mistakenly call it) taking a logical step to defend his class and personal economic interests?

This pamphlet does no more than MacDonald and the others to convince us either that there is a majority who will never understand Socialism, or that Socialism can be brought about by an “intelligent minority,” behind the backs of the working class.
Edgar Hardcastle