1960s >> 1960 >> no-674-october-1960

Leaders of the Blind

This is the first of a series of articles reappraising books which were part of almost every socialist’s library in the early part of this century.

‘Ten Blind Leaders of the Blind’, by Arthur M. Lewis: published in Chicago by Charles H. Kerr and Company in 1908

This is a volume of ten lectures delivered by Mr. Lewis in America before the first world war. Mr. Lewis claims to be a Socialist, but is really, like so many others who make the same claim, only a Social Democrat (in British terms, a Labourite). Nevertheless, this book is full of interest to any Socialist.

It deals with ten politicians, writers, and philosophers. Some of them are now forgotten; a few people these days have heard of Benjamin Kidd and Professor Richard Ely. Yet it is instructive to be reminded of some of these erstwhile worthies. Bishop Spalding, for example, speaking of the contrast between rich and poor, the bishop had this to say:

    “That the cause of this disparity of condition is moral rather than economic whoever observes may see; and this fact gives emphasis to the great truth that all real amelioration in the lot of human beings depends on religious, moral and intellectual conditions. Money does not make a miser rich nor its lack a true man poor . . . For the most fortunate men life is full of difficulties and troubles: for the poorest it may be filled with light, peace and blessedness.

    In a Socialist State, in which the universal ideal is that of physical well-being and comfort, the sublimer moods which make saints, heroes, and men of genius possible would no longer be called forth.”

So it is not only ourselves who have had to listen to bishops telling us that we are poor because of “moral conditions,” and that the poorest may be “filled with blessedness,” whatever that means: our forefathers had to put up with this cant as well. On the other hand, the spectacle of bishops, who are notoriously well-provided in point of “physical well-being and comfort” even to non-bishops, must have been as entertaining then as it is now.

Other of Mr. Lewis’s subjects are remembered now only as historical curiosities. One such is Henry George, who proposed that landlords should be made to turn all their rent over to the state. This would give the state a sufficient income, and no one else would then have to pay any taxes. Henry George’s Land Tax movement, to which reformers flocked in the last part of the nineteenth century, was of course the outcome of the reluctance of the capitalists to pay for the running of the countries which they ruled. As Marx said of earlier proposals of the same kind: “This is the frank expression of hatred which the industrial capitalist entertains for the landowner, who seems to him a useless or superfluous entity in the scheme of bourgeois or capitalist production.” But the only people who can pay for the running of a capitalist country are the capitalists: and Henry George’s land tax schemes have been exploded for many years.

Another curiosity is Cesare Lombroso. It is astounding now to recall that he became famous for his theories that the causes of crime were in physical build: that men became murderers and thieves because of the shape of their skulls or the colour of their hair. He wrote books purporting, for example, to show that “prostitutes have smaller skulls, lighter hair, darker eyes, heavier bodies, and shorter feet than normal women.”

Thomas Carlyle

It is not now necessary to argue against Lombroso. But other controversies touched on by Mr. Lewis are still raging with undiminished fury. The chapter on Thomas Carlyle is largely concerned with the “Great Man Theory,” which still has its devotees. This theory, in Carlyle’s words, holds that “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the great men who have worked here.” It is the leaders, the politicians, the inventors (say the apologists of this school) who go ahead of mankind, who mould history according to their ideas, who change the entire course of a nation’s progress by their sudden, brilliant decisions. For example, in Carlyle’s view the whole Reformation depended on Luther. If he had recanted when the Roman Catholic authorities summoned him to appear before them, the entire Reformation (in his view) would never have occurred. But to believe this one has to ignore the fact that the ruling class of much of Europe was on the verge of revolt over the revenues that the Catholic Church drained away from their no subjects: no ruling class is content with half the surplus value of its subjects, if it thinks there is the faintest chance of getting it all. The atmosphere was that of a powder magazine. When a powerful class is ready for revolt, any spark will set it off: if Luther had not provided the spark in this case, then somebody else would.

Mr. Lewis also deals with the case of invention and discovery. The “Great Man Theory” says that inventors and discoverers are men who independently strike out in front of the rest of mankind, and by the sheer force of intellect or character mark out the road which the human race is to follow. But this is to go sadly wide of the facts. When the material conditions, and the productive processes, of a certain country have reached a stage where a new step is both desirable and possible, then inventors will do the rest. If one fails, another will succeed. Very often an invention or discovery is made independently by two or more people. For example, the telescope was invented independently by Jansen, by Lippershey, and by Galileo in the space of two years. Oxygen was discovered independently by Priestley and by a Swedish village apothecary. The nebular theory of the universe was discovered both by Kant and by Laplace. The planet Neptune was discovered by Adams and by Leverrier. The principle of evolution by natural selection was discovered by Darwin, and also, at the same time, by Alfred Russell Wallace. The materialist conception of history was discovered by both Marx and by Engels. These famous examples, along with other evidence, are marshalled skilfully by Mr. Lewis in this chapter.

Immanuel Kant

Another chapter which is worth careful reading is that on Kant. Kant was one of those philosophers who devoted themselves to endeavours to bolster up religion. Religious belief cannot be supported by reason, as religious apologists are often ready to admit. Why, then, should one believe what is not rational? A common theological answer is—Faith: you cannot reason out the existence of a God, but you must have Faith that he is there all the same. Which is much the same as saying, you cannot believe, but still you must believe.

This was the problem that Kant tackled. He started off by maintaining, in his Critique of Pure Reason, that we cannot see things as they really are, only as they appear to be. The two tools by which men understand the world, experience and reason, were thus written off. One suspects that this was because neither experience nor reason can support religious belief. Having cleared the ground, Kant then passed on to the question of how we can come to know the “eternal verities”—a phrase which usually includes religious belief. He had to find a source of knowledge independent of experience and reason. In his Critique of Practical Reason, he brings forward his answer: we must dive down inside our own consciousness, and there we will find the great necessary and universal truths. And what are these great and universal truths? Kant scrabbled around in his own consciousness, and came up with his own list. No prizes are offered for guessing what they were: a personal God, free will, and a future life were all there—all the usual rag-bag of religious beliefs.  One can imagine the howl of derision that would go up if a Socialist attempted to justify his beliefs with such transparent taradiddle: but because Kant supported the political and religious beliefs of the owning class, he was honoured as a great philosopher, and still is.

The beliefs of Kant, and the beliefs of Carlyle, are still held by many who support the present system of society. If only to read these two chapters it is worthwhile getting hold of this book.

Alwyn Edgar

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