1950s >> 1958 >> no-650-october-1958

Socialism and Perfection

The aim of the Socialist is to achieve perfection, and perfection is unattainable—so goes the argument. The assumption is that somehow human beings are to be transformed into supermen and women, all virtue and no vice, once the millenium has been reached. This approach to the problem is the wrong one and very misleading.

 

The improvement in human behaviour which we envisage is not an abstract conception of how people might behave in a better world, but is based on our observation and knowledge of how people actually do behave. It can be seen that sometimes people react in a truly human way to each other, and sometimes the reverse. An objection here may be: “What do we mean by truly human, surely all the actions of human beings must by definition be human? ” If we can agree that men are primarily social beings, that everything they do and think is connected in diverse ways with, and affected by, what others do and think (even in matters of sex), that what we recognise as human as opposed to merely animal is the result of thousands of years of social evolution; of living together in mutual dependence, then the act of, for example, saving life is more human than destroying it

 

We may ascribe changes in our behaviour to each other to quite arbitrary vagaries of human nature, but once an analysis has been made of the conditions and circumstances in which our actions occur, we will see that a definite causal connection can be traced. A man who is worried about his relations with his employers and fears the sack, is possibly not going to be easy to live with as when he is relatively safe. (Assuming for the sake of argument no other disruptions.) Meeting such a person for the first time we might say: “What an unpleasant man Smith is.” Or if we heard he had been beating his children; “What a brute that man Smith is.” We would have implied by our remarks that the trouble was entirely with Smith, and not, as in this case, the result of a conflict between Smith and the owner of the means of his existence. Though it is interesting to note that if we knew him, we would probably say: “I wonder what has got into old Smith? ” Here the implication is the reverse, we have recognised a contributory factor. Once this point has been agreed upon, it is not a far step to realising that if the conditions of society were changed the circumstances (e.g., labour and capital relationship) producing undesirable human behaviour would disappear. If asked what proof we have of this apart from the logic of the argument, it would suffice to say that if mankind is capable of behaviour conducive to social well-being some of the time, it is capable of it all of the time and in all spheres of human activity.

 

This is no perfectionist myth which implies the singular development of man along the road of constant progress. The perfectionist idea implies also that man is now inferior to what the would-be perfectionists might make him. In some cases it takes a mechanistic form, too; that is, it conceives men as living together by agreement or contract, that society is a man-made utopia rather than a social growth. That Socialism would be a distinct form of society and unconnected with Capitalism, a Minerva springing complete from the heads of the idealists rather than being born of the society existing prior to it and bearing the marks of its origins. All this is a fallacy. What we as Socialists aim to do is to organise society in such a way that there will be no fetters and restrictions on the desire for peaceful and purposeful co-operation, the desire of millions of people caught in the maelstrom of Capitalism, who as yet see no way out. It is on the basis of our knowledge of what man is that we want to change the world, not from some abstract concept of what we imagine would be nice: simply extending our own preferences on to society at large.

 

The important question now arises: at what point does the change in human behaviour take place; before the revolution in the social structure in order to change it (in which case it would then seem unnecessary), or afterwards, which would be an impossible absurdity, like a baby begetting its parents in order to be born. To quote Marx (Capital, Vol. I, page 157.): “By action on the external world and changing it. he (man) changes his own nature.” It is in the union in time and place of the desire and the action of its fulfilment that man will become truly human in the complete sense. It follows from this that mankind as a whole must make the effort. There are no means by which the Socialist Party of Great Britain alone can do this, nor are there any verifiable laws of nature, society or history to help, or for that matter to hinder the attainment of Socialism. The only laws are the exigencies of the immediate social condition, the state in which we find ourselves and the power of social consciousness.

 

Man makes his own history, albeit according to the conditions of the time. Conditions which have today raised problems not only of the fundamental relationships of simply living together, but of even the very survival of the human race. Problems which have got to be solved.

 

Ian Jones