1970s >> 1978 >> no-883-march-1978

Socialism — the politics of reason

A pessimistic view of man might see him as condemned to the pursuit of illusions. It might see him as preoccupied with meaningless objectives or otherwise held compulsively in the grip of self-destructive causes. Who could deny that there is some truth in such a view? For all man’s efforts, his best hopes remain constantly denied. The organisation of life about human needs evades us. In place of cohesion we have dislocation and violent conflict. The most disturbing feature of society is the unwillingness to recognise reality. The gap between understanding and experience is filled by false ideas which prevent us from solving problems.

This kind of pessimism is recent and can be contrasted with the optimism of the 18th and 19th centuries—the so-called age of enlightenment. Then it was thought that human progress followed inevitably from the new spirit of rationality and the development of the sciences. Physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, political economy and philosophy were all subjects of intense theoretical speculation. A new confidence grew out of expanded knowledge in every field of enquiry. Although the mood had its detractors it was felt that the new knowledge and its use in more efficient productive techniques and improved communications would improve the quality of life.


Now that confidence has been shattered, not only because man has been unable to solve his social problems; in this century, man’s inhumanity to man is unprecedented. The disillusion is particularly with science and its application in technology which many people see as worsening or even causing social problems. They point to pollution of the air, the spoiling of the environment, the depletion of resources, the development and use of nuclear weapons. They see the technical culture as being humanly sterile, resulting in consumerism and the alienation of man in the work process in vast industrial complexes. The application of science seems more frightening than reassuring, and the times are described as the age of anxiety.

Even rationality itself has come to be suspect, and the politics of irrationality are pursued by some as being more to the human point. In their attack on science, advocates of the counter culture argue that in striving for objectivity man separates himself from the most important human values. In his book The Making of a Counter Culture, Theodore Roszak writes,

   “Objective consciousness is alienated life elevated to its most honorific status as the scientific method. Under its auspices we subordinate nature to our command only by estranging ourselves from more and more of what we experience, until the reality about which objectivity tells us so much finally becomes a universe of congealed alienation.”

The disillusion with science could not be more -complete than this. He writes,

“. . . the primary purpose of human existence is not to devise ways of piling up ever greater heaps of knowledge, but to discover ways to live from day to day that integrate the whole of our nature by way of yielding nobility of conduct, honest fellowship, and joy.”

The absurdity of Roszak’s attack on science is that in his systematic analysis of the problem he classifies three destructive mental characteristics of objectivity which if true must apply to his own objectivity thereby destroying his own argument.

To attribute the misuse of science to science itself is an idea which is not only false but dangerous. Human beings abandon rationality to their cost. One expression of political irrationality is fascism. In a published lecture, Professor Lipset of Harvard University has said

“If one looks at the literature of the Nazi Student Movement and particularly of Nazi intellectuals, one finds an emphasis on a belief in romanticism. It condemned technology, the products of modern science, modern developments that came out of the university, and they saw the scientific method as undermining the truth which they thought men had to feel. They stressed the virtues of nature and what men felt—from their backgrounds, from their internal feelings—as overriding what their minds told them in any kind of scientific way.”

Professor Lipset argues that the Nazi movement was created or sustained by waves of discontent fed by inflation and depression. We would agree with this. It was an irrational response to conditions which were not clearly understood. The pervasive nostalgia of the fascist appeal to mythology, nationalism and race was a refuge of despair. The Nazi movement created the illusion of strength, solidarity and purpose. In fact it was an irrational retreat from reality, in which frustration and a deep feeling of powerlessness gave rise to hate, hostility and the persecution of political scapegoats.

Irrationality of Fascism

The irrationality of fascism cannot be dissociated from the total irrationality of the social structure which still persists. The situation where men do not understand how it is that their needs remain unsatisfied, and where the social experience is one of frustration and prolonged failure, is always dangerous. In seeking election, conventional reformist parties such as the Labour and Tory parties, help to create false expectations. In their interaction with the prevailing confusion they pretend that they can solve problems. Though they would disclaim it, and even actively oppose it, there is a connecting link between the failures of reformist governments and the rise of fascist attitudes. Once again we see the regrowth of fascism in a variety of forms. Once again the failure of reformist parties in worsening conditions of recession, unemployment and inflation is being expressed through the politics of hate.

The National Front is an obvious example. There are other groups who would disclaim any similarity with fascism and yet can be found to share many fascist attitudes’. There are so-called “leftist” groups who hold democratic procedures in contempt, are disposed to violence, who justify any means with illusory ends, who are elitist and orientated towards leadership and who fee! that out of the creation of chaos some kind of better order can grow.

Ill-Informed Frustration

The Baader Meinhof group is one such organisation which generates a romantic heroism and places a value on “action” against the apparent invulnerability of existing social structures. These are dangerous people who arrogate to themselves an absolute sense of right and who are mirror images of the authoritarianism they claim to oppose. They are born in the irrationality of ill-informed frustration.

The anti-science attitude in politics leads to social degeneracy, but the 19th century optimism about science was also unjustified. In general terms it cannot be doubted that in the expansion of knowledge man has a greater understanding of nature and can see his own existence as part of nature in a clear and more realistic perspective. More than that, man’s knowledge of his total environment has increased his ability to manipulate it to his advantage. But it also remains true that the free use of science for the benefit of man remains distorted and checked. The reasons why this is so penetrate directly to the contradictions of capitalist society.
We might ask, under what order of priorities does society use vast resources of labour and materials, including the work of brilliant physicists, for destructive purposes? Why do we produce spy satellites? In the face of human need why do we stockpile nuclear weapons and undistributed food side by side? How can we account for the grotesque paradox in which brilliant success is achieved in the technology of human destruction while men starve and the productive potential is not developed for human need?

Science does not operate in a social vacuum. The purposes for which science is used are the purposes of society in general. We can only understand the perverted priorities given to science and technology by understanding the overall political and economic motives of capitalism.

The negativism of the so-called counter culture, which deludes itself into thinking that positive results can be achieved by contracting out, and the vicious irrationality of fascism, are both signposts to further human disaster. Yet both these viewpoints are only exaggerated aspects of the confused thinking which in general shows little cognisance of the reality of life in capitalist society. This is the gap between experience and the way that experience is understood in political terms. This lack of understanding of the way capitalism functions is the main barrier against the solution of social problems. But this confusion has its own social explanation, it is a fact that irrational ideas serve the dominant economic interest. Men are socially organised about economic objectives which have no relevance to their real needs and which in fact are hostile to their needs and in this they remain politically unaware. This is the basis of the prevailing social insanity which is marked by a dislocation of thought, experience and need.

Equality of Access

Socialism describes an alternative society based on equality of access and co-operation, but also it is a study of man in all the consequences of his productive relationships as an historical process. The socialist analysis establishes knowledge which brings into consciousness the reality of social experience and in doing so makes possible a society where man controls his social life to satisfy his needs.

The Socialist Party is not a Marxist party in the sense that it upholds all the political attitudes of Karl Marx. Our attitudes are developed independently and are only attributable to ourselves. We do take the Marxian method, the labour theory of value and the materialist conception of history, as being the most useful theoretical means for clarifying man’s social problems and how man arrived where he is.

These theories are elaborated in socialist literature but reference can be made to the way in which some basic propositions meet the reality of everyday experience. It is everyday experience that wealth is produced in the form of commodities which are sold on markets with a view to profit. Stockpiles of food remain undistributed to prop up the market. Where there is no market, and no profit in view, production does not take place and workers are unemployed. Who can doubt the reality of the fact that human needs are sacrificed on the altar of the profit motive?

The socialist analysis shows that these contradictions stem directly from the economic relationships of class divided society. The means of producing wealth have been developed by man’s social labour throughout the ages. Under capitalism the means of production and the earth’s resources are monopolised by a privileged minority—the capitalist class. The working class, in their work activity, are forced by their separation from the means of production to be the objects of economic exploitation. This is the basis on which our society is erected, and the reason why the insanities of profit and class privilege predominate over the needs of man.

The dominating interests of capital hold all man’s skills and talents in the grip of its anti-human objectives. Where it does not channel them into destructiveness, it squanders them in waste or exploits them for profit, while the urgent need to improve the quality of life is ignored. This includes science and technology. Technical development is conditional upon the overall possibility of exploiting labour and the realisation of profit. This is the barrier against the free use of science and technology in the human interest.

The establishment of a society where social organisation fulfills the needs of man must begin with an understanding of existing problems. The socialist analysis achieves this. The first condition of a sane society, in which science and technology can serve human needs, must be the dispossession of the capitalist class of the means of production. The whole apparatus of production must be owned in common by the whole of mankind and used freely in relationships of equality and co-operation to serve human need. The ideology of capitalism can now only fight a rearguard action against further social development. This fight is essentially against the recognition of reality; to this end it will foster any confusion, exploit any prejudice, and use any distortion of human possibilities to make the task appear more difficult than it really is.

Those who suffer most from the inequalities of capitalism—the working class—must do their own thinking. The responsibility for creating a better world rests with them. They must consider the socialist argument in the reality of their everyday experience. Time and again they have shown that they can cooperate together in causes other than the solution of their own problems.

Pieter Lawrence