Against All Reason  






SOCIALISM has been advocated by most of its champions chiefly as a means of increasing the welfare of the wage earning classes, and more particularly their material welfare. It has seemed accordingly, to some men whose aims are not material, as if it has nothing to offer toward the general advancement of civilization in the way of art and thought. Some of its advocates, moreover—and among these Marx must be included—have written, no doubt not deliberately, as if with the Socialist revolution the millennium would have arrived, and there would be no need of further progress for the human race. I do not know whether our age is more restless than that which preceded it, or whether it has merely become more impregnated with the idea of evolution, but, for whatever reason, we have grown incapable of believing in a state of static perfection, and we demand, of any social system, which is to have our approval, that it shall contain within itself a stimulus and opportunity for progress toward something still better. The doubts thus raised by Socialist writers make it necessary to inquire whether Socialism would in fact be hostile to art and science, and whether it would be likely to produce a stereotyped society in which progress would become difficult and slow.

It is not enough that men and women should be made comfortable in a material sense. Many members of the well-to-do classes at present, in spite of opportunity, contribute nothing of value to the life of the world, and do not even succeed in securing for themselves any personal happiness worthy to be so called. The multiplication of such individuals would be an achievement of the very minutest value; and if Socialism were merely to bestow upon all the kind of life and outlook which is now enjoyed by the more apathetic among the well-to-do, it would offer little that could inspire enthusiasm in any generous spirit.

"The true role of collective existence," says M. Naquet,[57]" . . . is to learn, to discover, to know. Eating, drinking, sleeping, living, in a word, is a mere accessory. In this respect, we are not distinguished from the brute. Knowledge is the goal. If I were condemned to choose between a humanity materially happy, glutted after the manner of a flock of sheep in a field, and a humanity existing in misery, but from which emanated, here and there, some eternal truth, it is on the latter that my choice would fall."

[57] "L’Anarchie et le Collectivisme," p. 114.

This statement puts the alternative in a very extreme form in which it is somewhat unreal. It may be said in reply that for those who have had the leisure and the opportunity to enjoy "eternal truths" it is easy to exalt their importance at the expense of sufferings which fall on others. This is true; but, if it is taken as disposing of the question, it leaves out of account the importance of thought for progress. Viewing the life of mankind as a whole, in the future as well as in the present, there can be no question that a society in which some men pursue knowledge while others endure great poverty offers more hope of ultimate good than a society in which all are sunk in slothful comfort. It is true that poverty is a great evil, but it is not true that material prosperity is in itself a great good. If it is to have any real value to society, it must be made a means to the advancement of those higher goods that belong to the life of the mind. But the life of the mind does not consist of thought and knowledge alone, nor can it be completely healthy unless it has some instinctive contact, however deeply buried, with the general life of the community. Divorced from the social instinct, thought, like art, tends to become finicky and precious. It is the position of such art and thought as is imbued with the instinctive sense of service to mankind that we wish to consider, for it is this alone that makes up the life of the mind in the sense in which it is a vital part of the life of the community. Will the life of the mind in this sense be helped or hindered by Socialism? And will there still be a sufficient spur to progress to prevent a condition of Byzantine immobility?

In considering this question we are, in a certain sense, passing outside the atmosphere of democracy. The general good of the community is realized only in individuals, but it is realized much more fully in some individuals than in others. Some men have a comprehensive and penetrating intellect, enabling them to appreciate and remember what has been thought and known by their predecessors, and to discover new regions in which they enjoy all the high delights of the mental explorer. Others have the power of creating beauty, giving bodily form to impalpable visions out of which joy comes to many. Such men are more fortunate than the mass, and also more important for the collective life. A larger share of the general sum of good is concentrated in them than in the ordinary man and woman; but also their contribution to the general good is greater. They stand out among men and cannot be wholly fitted into the framework of democratic equality. A social system which would render them unproductive would stand condemned, whatever other merits it might have.

The first thing to realize—though it is difficult in a commercial age—is that what is best in creative mental activity cannot be produced by any system of monetary rewards. Opportunity and the stimulus of an invigorating spiritual atmosphere are important, but, if they are presented, no financial inducements will be required, while if they are absent, material compensations will be of no avail. Recognition, even if it takes the form of money, can bring a certain pleasure in old age to the man of science who has battled all his life against academic prejudice, or to the artist who has endured years of ridicule for not painting in the manner of his predecessors; but it is not by the remote hope of such pleasures that their work has been inspired. All the most important work springs from an uncalculating impulse, and is best promoted, not by rewards after the event, but by circumstances which keep the impulse alive and afford scope for the activities which it inspires. In the creation of such circumstances our present system is much at fault. Will Socialism be better?

I do not think this question can be answered without specifying the kind of Socialism that is intended: some forms of Socialism would, I believe, be even more destructive in this respect than the present capitalist regime, while others would be immeasurably better. Three things which a social system can provide or withhold are helpful to mental creation: first, technical training; second, liberty to follow the creative impulse; third, at least the possibility of ultimate appreciation by some public, whether large or small. We may leave out of our discussion both individual genius and those intangible conditions which make some ages great and others sterile in art and science—not because these are unimportant, but because they are too little understood to be taken account of in economic or political organization. The three conditions we have mentioned seem to cover most of what can be SEEN to be useful or harmful from our present point of view, and it is therefore to them that we shall confine ourselves.

1. Technical Training.—Technical training at present, whether in science or art, requires one or other of two conditions. Either a boy must be the son of well-to-do parents who can afford to keep him while he acquires his education, or he must show so much ability at an early age as to enable him to subsist on scholarships until he is ready to earn his living. The former condition is, of course, a mere matter of luck, and could not be preserved in its present form under any kind of Socialism or Communism. This loss is emphasized by defenders of the present system, and no doubt it would be, to same extent, a real loss. But the well-to-do are a small proportion of the population, and presumably on the average no more talented by nature than their less fortunate contemporaries. If the advantages which are enjoyed now by those few among them who are capable of good work in science or art could be extended, even in a slightly attenuated form, to all who are similarly gifted, the result would almost infallibly be a gain, and much ability which is now wasted would be rendered fruitful. But how is this to be effected?

The system of scholarships obtained by competition, though better than nothing, is objectionable from many points of view. It introduces the competitive spirit into the work of the very young; it makes them regard knowledge from the standpoint of what is useful in examinations rather than in the light of its intrinsic interest or importance; it places a premium upon that sort of ability which is displayed precociously in glib answers to set questions rather than upon the kind that broods on difficulties and remains for a time rather dumb. What is perhaps worse than any of these defects is the tendency to cause overwork in youth, leading to lack of vigor and interest when manhood has been reached. It can hardly be doubted that by this cause, at present, many fine minds have their edge blunted and their keenness destroyed.

State Socialism might easily universalize the system of scholarships obtained by competitive examination, and if it did so it is to he feared that it would be very harmful. State Socialists at present tend to be enamored of the systems which is exactly of the kind that every bureaucrat loves: orderly, neat, giving a stimulus to industrious habits, and involving no waste of a sort that could be tabulated in statistics or accounts of public expenditure. Such men will argue that free higher education is expensive to the community, and only useful in the case of those who have exceptional abilities; it ought, therefore, they will say, not to be given to all, but only to those who will become more useful members of society through receiving it. Such arguments make a great appeal to what are called "practical" men, and the answers to them are of a sort which it is difficult to render widely convincing. Revolt against the evils of competition is, however, part of the very essence of the Socialist’s protest against the existing order, and on this ground, if on no other, those who favor Socialism may be summoned to look for some better solution.

Much the simplest solution, and the only really effective one, is to make every kind of education free up to the age of twenty-one for all boys and girls who desire it. The majority will be tired of education before that age, and will prefer to begin other work sooner; this will lead to a natural selection of those with strong interests in some pursuit requiring a long training. Among those selected in this way by their own inclinations, probably almost all tho have marked abilities of the kind in question will be included. It is true that there will also be many who have very little ability; the desire to become a painter, for example, is by no means confined to those who can paint. But this degree of waste could well be borne by the community; it would be immeasurably less than that now entailed by the support of the idle rich. Any system which aims at avoiding this kind of waste must entail the far more serious waste of rejecting or spoiling some of the best ability in each generation. The system of free education up to any grade for all who desire it is the only system which is consistent with the principles of liberty, and the only one which gives a reasonable hope of affording full scope for talent. This system is equally compatible with all forms of Socialism and Anarchism. Theoretically, it is compatible with capitalism, but practically it is so opposite in spirit that it would hardly be feasible without a complete economic reconstruction. The fact that Socialism would facilitate it must be reckoned a very powerful argument in favor of change, for the waste of talent at present in the poorer classes of society must be stupendous.

2. Liberty to follow the creative impulse.— When a man’s training has been completed, if he is possessed of really great abilities, he will do his best work if he is completely free to follow his bent, creating what seems good to him, regardless of the judgment of "experts." At present this is only possible for two classes of people: those who have private means, and those who can earn a living by an occupation that does not absorb their whole energies. Under Socialism, there will be no one with private means, and if there is to be no loss as regards art and science, the opportunity which now comes by accident to a few will have to be provided deliberately for a much larger number. The men who have used private means as an opportunity for creative work have been few but important: one might mention Milton, Shelley, Keats and Darwin as examples. Probably none of these would have produced as good work if they had had to earn their livelihood. If Darwin had been a university teacher, he would of course have been dismissed from his post by the influence of the clerics on account of his scandalous theories.

Nevertheless, the bulk of the creative work of the world is done at present by men who subsist by some other occupation. Science, and research generally, are usually done in their spare time by men who live by teaching. There is no great objection to this in the case of science, provided the number of hours devoted to teaching is not excessive. It is partly because science and teaching are so easily combined that science is vigorous in the present age. In music, a composer who is also a performer enjoys similar advantages, but one who is not a performer must starve, unless he is rich or willing to pander to the public taste. In the fine arts, as a rule, it is not easy in the modern world either to make a living by really good work or to find a subsidiary profession which leaves enough leisure for creation. This is presumably one reason, though by no means the only one, why art is less flourishing than science.

The bureaucratic State Socialist will have a simple solution for these difficulties. He will appoint a body consisting of the most eminent celebrities in an art or a science, whose business it shall be to judge the work of young men, and to issue licenses to those whose productions find favor in their eyes. A licensed artist shall be considered to have performed his duty to the community by producing works of art. But of course he will have to prove his industry by never failing to produce in reasonable quantities, and his continued ability by never failing to please his eminent judges—until, in the fulness of time, he becomes a judge himself. In this way, the authorities will insure that the artist shall be competent, regular, and obedient to the best traditions of his art. Those who fail to fulfil these conditions will be compelled by the withdrawal of their license to seek some less dubious mode of earning their living. Such will be the ideal of the State Socialist.

In such a world all that makes life tolerable to the lover of beauty would perish. Art springs from a wild and anarchic side of human nature; between the artist and the bureaucrat there must always be a profound mutual antagonism, an age-long battle in which the artist, always outwardly worsted, wins in the end through the gratitude of mankind for the joy that he puts into their lives. If the wild side of human nature is to be permanently subjected to the orderly rules of the benevolent, uncomprehending bureaucrat, the joy of life will perish out of the earth, and the very impulse to live will gradually wither and die. Better a thousandfold the present world with all its horrors than such a dead mummy of a world. Better Anarchism, with all its risks, than a State Socialism that subjects to rule what must be spontaneous and free if it is to have any value. It is this nightmare that makes artists, and lovers of beauty generally, so often suspicious of Socialism. But there is nothing in the essence of Socialism to make art impossible: only certain forms of Socialism would entail this danger. William Morris was a Socialist, and was a Socialist very largely because he was an artist. And in this he was not irrational.

It is impossible for art, or any of the higher creative activities, to flourish under any system which requires that the artist shall prove his competence to some body of authorities before he is allowed to follow his impulse. Any really great artist is almost sure to be thought incompetent by those among his seniors who would be generally regarded as best qualified to form an opinion. And the mere fact of having to produce work which will please older men is hostile to a free spirit and to bold innovation. Apart from this difficulty, selection by older men would lead to jealousy and intrigue and back-biting, producing a poisonous atmosphere of underground competition. The only effect of such a plan would be to eliminate the few who now slip through owing to some fortunate accident. It is not by any system, but by freedom alone, that art can flourish.

There are two ways by which the artist could secure freedom under Socialism of the right kind. He might undertake regular work outside his art, doing only a few hours’ work a day and receiving proportionately less pay than those who do a full day’s work. He ought, in that case, to be at liberty to sell his pictures if he could find purchasers. Such a system would have many advantages. It would leave absolutely every man free to become an artist, provided he were willing to suffer a certain economic loss. This would not deter those in whom the impulse was strong and genuine, but would tend to exclude the dilettante. Many young artists at present endure voluntarily much greater poverty than need be entailed by only doing half the usual day’s work in a well-organized Socialist community; and some degree of hardship is not objectionable, as a test of the strength of the creative impulse, and as an offset to the peculiar joys of the creative life.

The other possibility[58] would be that the necessaries of life should be free, as Anarchists desire, to all equally, regardless of whether they work or not.

Under this plan, every man could live without work: there would be what might be called a "vagabond’s wage," sufficient for existence but not for luxury. The artist who preferred to have his whole time for art and enjoyment might live on the "vagabond’s wage"—traveling on foot when the humor seized him to see foreign countries, enjoying the air and the sun, as free as the birds, and perhaps scarcely less happy. Such men would bring color and diversity into the life of the community; their outlook would be different from that of steady, stay-at-home workers, and would keep alive a much-needed element of light-heartedness which our sober, serious civilization tends to kill. If they became very numerous, they might be too great an economic burden on the workers; but I doubt if there are many with enough capacity for simple enjoyments to choose poverty and free-dom in preference to the comparatively light and pleasant work which will be usual in those days.

[58] Which we discussed in Chapter IV.

By either of these methods, freedom can be preserved for the artist in a socialistic commonwealth— far more complete freedom, and far more widespread, than any that now exists except for the possessors of capital.

But there still remain some not altogether easy problems. Take, for example, the publishing of books. There will not, under Socialism, be private publishers as at present: under State Socialism, presumably the State will be the sole publisher, while under Syndicalism or Guild Socialism the Federation du Livre will have the whole of the trade in its hands. Under these circumstances, who is to decide what MSS. are to be printed? It is clear that opportunities exist for an Index more rigorous than that of the Inquisition. If the State were the sole publisher, it would doubtless refuse books opposed to State Socialism. If the Federation du Livre were the ultimate arbiter, what publicity could be obtained for works criticising it? And apart from such political difficulties we should have, as regards literature, that very censorship by eminent officials which we agreed to regard as disastrous when we were considering the fine arts in general. The difficulty is serious, and a way of meeting it must be found if literature is to remain free.

Kropotkin, who believes that manual and intellectual work should be combined, holds that authors themselves should be compositors, bookbinders, etc. He even seems to suggest that the whole of the manual work involved in producing books should be done by authors. It may be doubted whether there are enough authors in the world for this to be possible, and in any case I cannot but think that it would be a waste of time for them to leave the work they understand in order to do badly work which others could do far better and more quickly. That, however, does not touch our present point, which is the question how the MSS. to be printed will be selected. In Kropotkin’s plan there will presumably be an Author’s Guild, with a Committee of Management, if Anarchism allows such things. This Committee of Management will decide which of the books submitted to it are worthy to be printed. Among these will be included those by the Committee and their friends, but not those by their enemies. Authors of rejected MSS. will hardly have the patience to spend their time setting up the works of successful rivals, and there will have to be an elaborate system of log-rolling if any books are to be printed at all. It hardly looks as if this plan would conduce to harmony among literary men, or would lead to the publication of any book of an unconventional tendency. Kropotkin’s own books, for example, would hardly have found favor.

The only way of meeting these difficulties, whether under State Socialism or Guild Socialism or Anarchism, seems to be by making it possible for an author to pay for the publication of his book if it is not such as the State or the Guild is willing to print at its own expense. I am aware that this method is contrary to the spirit of Socialism, but I do not see what other way there is of securing freedom. The payment might be made by undertaking to engage for an assigned period in some work of recognized utility and to hand over such proportion of the earnings as might be necessary. The work undertaken might of course be, as Kropotkin suggests, the manual part of the production of books, but I see no special reason why it should be. It would have to be an absolute rule that no book should be refused, no matter what the nature of its contents might be, if payment for publication were offered at the standard rate. An author who had admirers would be able to secure their help in payment. An unknown author might, it is true, have to suffer a considerable loss of comfort in order to make his payment, but that would give an automatic means of eliminating those whose writing was not the result of any very profound impulse and would be by no means wholly an evil.

Probably some similar method would be desirable as regards the publishing and performing of new music.

What we have been suggesting will, no doubt, be objected to by orthodox Socialists, since they will find something repugnant to their principles in the whole idea of a private person paying to have certain work done. But it is a mistake to be the slave of a system, and every system, if it is applied rigidly, will entail evils which could only be avoided by some concession to the exigencies of special cases. On the whole, a wise form of Socialism might afford infinitely better opportunities for the artist and the man of science than are possible in a capitalist community, but only if the form of Socialism adopted is one which is fitted for this end by means of provisions such as we have been suggesting.

3. Possibility of Appreciation.—This condition is one which is not necessary to all who do creative work, but in the sense in which I mean it the great majority find it very nearly indispensable. I do not mean widespread public recognition, nor that ignorant, half-sincere respect which is commonly accorded to artists who have achieved success. Neither of these serves much purpose. What I mean is rather understanding, and a spontaneous feeling that things of beauty are important. In a thoroughly commercialized society, an artist is respected if he makes money, and because he makes money, but there is no genuine respect for the works of art by which his money has been made. A millionaire whose fortune has been made in button-hooks or chewing-gum is regarded with awe, but none of this feeling is bestowed on the articles from which his wealth is derived. In a society which measures all things by money the same tends to be true of the artist. If he has become rich he is respected, though of course less than the millionaire, but his pictures or books or music are regarded as the chewing-gum or the button-hooks are regarded, merely as a means to money. In such an atmosphere it is very difficult for the artist to preserve his creative impulse pure: either he is contaminated by his surroundings, or he becomes embittered through lack of appreciation for the object of his endeavor.

It is not appreciation of the artist that is necessary so much as appreciation of the art. It is difficult for an artist to live in an environment in which everything is judged by its utility, rather than by its intrinsic quality. The whole side of life of which art is the flower requires something which may be called disinterestedness, a capacity for direct enjoyment without thought of tomorrow’s problems and difficulties. When people are amused by a joke they do not need to be persuaded that it will serve some important purpose. The same kind of direct pleasure is involved in any genuine appreciation of art. The struggle for life, the serious work of a trade or profession, is apt to make people too solemn for jokes and too pre-occupied for art. The easing of the struggle, the diminution in the hours of work, and the lightening of the burden of existence, which would result from a better economic system, could hardly fail to increase the joy of life and the vital energy, available for sheer delight in the world. And if this were achieved there would inevitably be more spontaneous pleasure in beautiful things, and more enjoyment of the work of artists. But none of these good results are to be expected from the mere removal of poverty: they all require also a diffused sense of freedom, and the absence of that feeling of oppression by a vast machine which now weighs down the individual spirit. I do not think State Socialism can give this sense of freedom, but some other forms of Socialism, which have absorbed what is true in Anarchist teaching, can give it to a degree of which capitalism is wholly incapable.

A general sense of progress and achievement is an immense stimulus to all forms of creative work. For this reason, a great deal will depend, not only in material ways, upon the question whether methods of production in industry and agriculture become stereotyped or continue to change rapidly as they have done during the last hundred years. Improved methods of production will be much more obviously than now to the interest of the community at large, when what every man receives is his due share of the total produce of labor. But there will probably not be any individuals with the same direct and intense interest in technical improvements as now belongs to the capitalist in manufacture. If the natural conservatism of the workers is not to prove stronger than their interest in increasing production, it will be necessary that, when better methods are introduced by the workers in any industry, part at least of the benefit should be allowed for a time to be retained by them. If this is done, it may be presumed that each Guild will be continually seeking for new processes or inventions, and will value those technical parts of scientific research which are useful for this purpose. With every improvement, the question will arise whether it is to be used to give more leisure or to increase the dividend of commodities. Where there is so much more leisure than there is now, there will be many more people with a knowledge of science or an understanding of art. The artist or scientific investigator will be far less cut off than he is at present from the average citizen, and this will almost inevitably be a stimulus to his creative energy.

I think we may fairly conclude that, from the point of view of all three requisites for art and science, namely, training, freedom and appreciation, State Socialism would largely fail to remove existing evils and would introduce new evils of its own; but Guild Socialism, or even Syndicalism, if it adopted a liberal policy toward those who preferred to work less than the usual number of hours at recognized occupations, might be immeasurably preferable to anything that is possible under the rule of capitalism. There are dangers, but they will all vanish if the importance of liberty is adequately acknowledged. In this as in nearly everything else, the road to all that is best is the road of freedom.

Contents - CHAPTER: - Introduction

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5 6 7 8
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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