Fresh thinking with stale ideas

Every now and again in the radical movement there crop up attempts “to think out afresh the foundations of a Socialist faith and its implications in the modern world.” The alleged “fresh” thinking always turns out to be a rehash of earlier attempts to bypass the obstacle of universal working class understanding; each attempt also overlooks, or is ignorant of, the fact the old ground is covered again in much the same way as it was covered in the past. Always the world of production and distribution is supposed to have thrown up some aspects that merits a change in outlook—but the outlook does not change; it is just the same reformist outlook attempting to iron out some of the wrinkles that mar the smooth running of the Capitalist social system.

These attempts at “fresh” thinking are generally the work of “intellectuals” whose ideas are not rooted in the working class movement, and who feel frustrated and confined in their efforts to make a mark in the world. The fruit of their work has always boiled down to the oiling of the machinery of capitalism to reduce some of the squeaks though the “fresh” thinkers have been too  “intellectual” to notice this.

Since the war there has been a plague of this furbishing up of stale ideas. In earlier times the touchstone of the “new” thinking was Social Democracy; since 1917 it has been Russia. Now the Communists are torn by a plethora of it, and, in this country, have even issued a journal, The Reasoner, as “a Journal of Discussion,” to re-examine the views they have been putting forward as established truth for nearly 40 years. What they are doing is going back to the earlier arguments over Dictatorship, which figured under the misleading and nonsensical title of “democratic centralism.” Again and again we pointed out in our columns, in the early twenties, the absurdity of attaching the name democracy to the rigid centralised dictatorship of the Bolsheviks. Apparently some Communists and fellow-travellers are at last beginning to have doubts about dictatorship. But the basis of their discussions, like the “new” thinking of the past, will get them nowhere because, like their forbears, they accept commodity production, as a continuing state of affairs, and the swindle that, with all its faults, the Russian State Capitalist system is really Socialist.

In the U.S.A., at the beginning of the thirties, there was also an upsurge of “new” thinking. The Modern Quarterly’’ for the winter 1930-31 contained several pages of this controversy. One of the participants was Lewis Mumford. V. F. Calverton replied to him effectively, but his reply was marred by his sympathy with the general Russian outlook.

We will give some quotations from Mumford, and readers will recognise the similarity between his ideas and those that are going the round to-day. After referring to what was happening in Russia he stated that in America they were faced with an entirely different set of conditions. That although there were many and serious evils in America under which workers suffered:

   “It is not the presence of prosperity, but the absence of terror, hunger and desperation that makes a revolution in the Russian sense of the word remote. More important, however, than the lack of desperate incentive is the fact that our society, unlike that of Russia in 1917, is a highly complicated industrial one, and the operation of our industries requires a high order of intelligent co-operation. . . . A revolution in America must be accomplished as the Grand Central Station was built tearing down the old, building up the new, and keeping the train service on schedule, all at the same time.”

The last few lines is the key to his outlook. The little by little and bit by bit attitude of the reformers. He puts his view more clearly later on:

  “Our society, then, will not be changed by a catastrophe; it will be changed by the continuous pressure of economic groups, working towards concrete ends, the control of an industry, the socialization of a municipal utility, the nationalization of a resource, the planning of great public works.”


Well we have had all these in this country, and the result? In last month’s Socialist Standard we quoted Sir Anthony Eden’s statement that unless inflation could be got rid of we were going downhill to poverty for ourselves and our children. Which shows how valueless, from the working class point of view, is all this planning and building like the Grand Central Station. It has no effect worth talking about on the fundamental basis of capitalism—on the class cleavage between workers and Capitalists. Who does, and must, carry out the planning that Mumford mentions? The Government of course— the Executive Committee of the ruling class. In face of this the following grandiose statements by Mumford reveal his fatuity:


   “In back of these concrete changes must be the sense of general ends and ultimate goals; the growth of a common culture, the development of friendly ways of living; the spread and renewal of the arts and sciences and their infiltration into every aspect of life; for without such ends all our material renovations will be baseless and impermanent To be conscious of these ends and to project them vividly is one of the definite rôles of the intellectual in preparing for the transformation.”

Well, how has it gone with the world, and with Mumford, and his like, since he wrote those words? We have suffered a gigantic war, we have seen the fratricidal strife in India, the Korean War and others, and we are living in dread of the destructive power of the Hydrogen Bomb. At the moment, also, the Suez Canal is the centre of a conflict that has an ultimate goal alright but has nothing to do with the development of friendly ways of living. We have also witnessed the many somersaults of the “Intellectuals” in different fields.


Mumford, himself, is not an exception to this charge. The man who urged the development of friendly ways of living turned jingo in 1939, calling Americans to arms to fight Germany. Mumford’s book “Men Must Act,” published in 1939, was a criticism of British policy for giving way to Hitler and urging the “democracies” to fight. In the preface he says:


  “The internal contradictions and conflicts that have piled up in Soviet Russia will remove, in all probability, the one menace that need cause a moment’s concern: the possibility of their effecting a tacit alliance with Fascist governments.” (Page 15.)


Of course the “intellectual” leader, Mumford, was entirely wrong. Russia did form an actual alliance with Germany and took part in the dismemberment of Poland. Mumford winds up his preface as follows:


  “Democracy has still a fighting chance of surviving in the present world, on one condition, that it is prepared to fight The main purpose of this book is to rally together those in America who have a firm belief in democracy; but its ultimate appeal is to men of good will throughout the world . . .
“If we are ready to die rather than submit to Fascism we may still establish a world in which peaceful men may again, not unhopefully, live. . . . Every man and woman must face this choice.”


Well Fascism was defeated and now we are hopefully living under the threat of the Hydrogen Bomb, and the world is a maelstrom of trouble. Mumford is just a glaring example of the ineptitude of the “intellectual” except as a tool to help sections of the master class out of trouble.


Before concluding we must make one more quotation from Mumford’s article in the American Quarterly:


  “What then, must be the attitude of the intellectual in America who seeks to further a creative transformation of our society? He must aim to keep alive in himself the essentials that are needed in a whole society which is oriented to the good life.”


Was be doing that when he shouted for war? He certainly helped to send the cream of youth to a bad death, even if be aimed to keep himself alive.
But the “new” thinkers are all the same. They are windy purveyors of stale ideas and tools of the ruling class —even if unconsciously.