Fabian Essays in Socialism

Edited by: Shaw, George Bernard
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H. G. Wilshire, American editor.
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New York: The Humboldt Publishing Co.
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Collected essays, various authors. Includes "Industry under Socialism," by Annie Besant.

The Basis of Socialism

by Sidney Olivier
B.A., Oxford.


THE argument of this installment of Socialist criticism may be provisionally described as an attempt to justify Socialist ideals by the appeal to canons of moral judgment accepted generally and supported by the results of positive ethical science. The previous essays have made it clear that we are dealing with Socialism in that restricted sense in which it is defined by Schaeffle,*77 as having for its aim "the replacement of private capital by collective capital: that is, by a method of production which, upon the basis of the collective property of the sum of all the members of the society in the instruments of production, seeks to carry on a coöperative organization of national work." We are not dealing with Socialism as a religion, nor as concerned with questions of sex or family: we treat it throughout as primarily a property-form, as the scheme of an industrial system for the supply of the material requisites of human social existence.


If it were admitted that the establishment of such a system would guarantee just this much—that abject poverty should be done away, and that every man and woman should be insured the opportunity of obtaining sufficient food and covering in return for a moderate day's work, we might still be far from convincing some people that the realization of that ideal would be a good thing for the world. There are still a great many who, though they may not join in the common prophecy that the chief result of such a system would be an increase in beer-drinking and other stupid self-indulgence,*78 yet regard starvation and misery as part of the inevitable order of nature, and as necessary conditions of progress, conducive to the survival of what they are pleased to call the "fittest" types of life. Such critics see danger to progress in any attempt to enroll intelligence and adaptiveness into conscious combination against starvation and misery, to extinguish by concerted effort survivals of the accidents of primitive barbarism against which as individuals we are always struggling. This aim of Socialism, accordingly, does not wholly commend itself to their moral judgment, to their opinion of what is good in the widest sense, although they may willingly admit that the aim possesses a certain element of short-sighted good intention. Other persons, influenced by religious conceptions older than that of progress, and regarding morality less as determined by reference to that end than as a concern of the individual, a certain state of the soul of each man, are inclined to view the material evils which Socialists desire to get rid of, as a necessary schooling and discipline without which individual morality would decay.


Against these doctrines Socialists would maintain that the ordering of our national life, and of the relations between individuals and social groups throughout the world in accordance with the principles of Socialism, is the effectual and indispensable process for insuring to the mass of mankind the advantages of progress already effected and its continued and orderly development, and for the realization, in individuals and the State, of the highest morality as yet imagined by us.*79


It may be well at this point to anticipate a challenge to define what is meant by the word "Morality," and to explain briefly the position which will be assumed, and the method which will be followed, throughout the succeeding observations. It must be remembered that the subject of this essay is "The Moral Aspect of the Basis of Socialism," and not "The Socialist View of the Basis of Morals." We may, therefore, conscientiously steer clear of the whirlpool of agelong controversy as to what that basis is, merely noting as we pass that any metaphysic of Ethics being necessarily universal, there is in this sense no special ethic or morality of Socialism. By such cautious procedure we sacrifice indeed the fascinating ambition to exhibit, by impressive dialectic pageant of deduction from first principles, the foundation of formal Socialism in the Idea that informs the universe. But we also avoid the certainty of losing, at the very outset of our attempted demonstration, the company of all but that minority who might assent to our fundamental propositions. A further sacrifice we shall make, in descending to the unpretentious methods of empiricism; for we thereby renounce the right of appeal to that theologic habit of mind common to Socialists with other pious persons. Mr. Henry George, educated under the American Constitution, may share the familiarity of its framers with the intentions of the Creator and the natural rights of Man. He may prove, as did Mr. Herbert Spencer in his generous youth, that private property in land is incompatible with the fundamental right of each individual to live and to own the product of his labor. But positive ethical science knows nothing of natural and fundamental rights: it knows nothing of individual liberty, nothing of equality, nothing of underlying unity. Yet here again our loss has some redress; for a brief survey will assure us that various schools of moral philosophy, differing in their characteristic first principles, are converging in the justification of Socialism; and that the practical judgments of contemporary mankind as to what sort of conduct is "moral," and what conditions make for the increase of "common morality," are in practice largely coincident. They offer, at least, a body of provisional opinion, or prejudice, to which we can appeal in presenting Socialism for criticism of its morality. The tribunal is by no means infallible: still, the common contemporary sense of humanity may count for something. But in approaching the criticism of Socialism from the point of view of ethics, we are bound to go a little deeper than this. While accepting the phenomena of current opinion on morality as part of our material, we must follow the explorations of ethical speculation into the causes and history of the development of those opinions. By examining the genesis of convictions that this or that kind of action is good or bad, moral or immoral, we shall be helped to form a judgment as to which appears likely to persist and be strengthened, and which to be modified, weakened, or forgotten. If the claim of Socialism rests on judgments of the latter class, we may know that it is a moribund bantling; if they preponderate among the obstacles to its credit, we may prophesy encouragingly of it; if it is supported by those judgments whose persistence seems essential to the survival of the individual and of society, we may be assured of its realization in the future.


Socialism appears as the offspring of Individualism, as the outcome of individualist struggle, and as the necessary condition for the approach to the Individualist ideal. The opposition commonly assumed in contrasting the two is an accident of the now habitual confusion between personality and personalty, between a man's life and the abundance of things that he has. Socialism is merely Individualism rationalized, organized, clothed, and in its right mind.*80 Socialism is taking form in advanced societies, and the social revolution must be brought to its formal accomplishment through the conscious action of innumerable individuals seeking an avenue to rational and pleasant existence for themselves and for those whose happiness and freedom they desire as they do their own. All conscious action, all conscious modification of conditions, is inspired by the desire of such personal relief, satisfaction, or expression, by the attempt to escape from some physical or intellectual distress. "Subjective volition, passion it is," says Hegel, "that sets men in activity: men will not interest themselves for anything unless they find their individuality gratified by its attainment." This common end, this desire of personal relief or satisfaction, we see throughout recorded or indicated history impelling every living creature on the earth; merging itself, as we trace it backward, in the mere apparent will to live of organisms not recognized as conscious, and in the indestructible energy of the inorganic. The field of activity thus conceived presents a panorama of somewhat large extent; but a very small division of it is all that we shall have to do with. For morality, whatever be its nature and basis, certainly does not become recognizable to us, we cannot attribute the quality of rightness or wrongness, until the formation of society has begun, until individuals are in conscious relation with individuals other than themselves.


If we could imagine an individual absolutely isolated, and having no relation at all with other sentient beings, we could not say that it was moral or immoral for him to eat, drink, sleep, breathe, wash himself, take exercise, cough, sneeze, and the like, just as much or as little, when or where he felt inclined. His conduct in these activities must appear to us absolutely indifferent. We may have some vague reflected suppositions as to what is necessary for the dignity and development of the man's "self," as we might call it; but this is a matter about which the man may pretend to know as much as we do; and we have really no valid ground for prejudice against the habits of the recluse Indian fakir, who has, on the other hand, considerable claims to be regarded as a peculiarly holy individual. But of every man living in society we can say, that if he starves himself into inefficiency; if he gorges or fuddles himself; if he sleeps unseasonably; if he abstains from the fresh air, the cleanliness, and the exercise, necessary to keep his body healthy and his presence pleasant; if he destroys his powers by overwork; then he is acting wrongly, immorally, unreasonably, in extreme cases insanely. (Insanity is only the name we give to abnormal deviation from what are accepted as reasonable and intelligible desires and behavior.) And if this is the case with actions of the kind loosely described as self-regarding, with those which most nearly concern the agent's own person, much more is it so with the kind of actions which necessarily and invariably affect other persons. Those relations of the individual with his fellows in which subjective morality is chiefly recognized, have no existence at all apart from society. Subjective morality, then, being only distinguishable in the State, the extent of our panorama is already much diminished; for in every gentile or national society, and to some degree in the World-State of to-day, we find the individualist activity, the desire and passion of the human unit, very largely exercising itself in accordance with what we call a moral habit. Innumerable types of society have been formed in the process of life-development. In the oldest of these we recognize the elements of a conventional morality, similar to that by which our own human society is held together. We consider the ways of the ant; and we see that they are wise.


We find that in all societies those actions and habits are approved as moral which tend to preserve the existence of society and the cohesion and convenience of its members; and that those which are or seem to be fraught with contrary tendencies are considered immoral. It is plain that no society in which these judgments were habitually reversed could continue in existence; and this fact will account for much of that general inherited disposition to actions socially beneficial, and inherited repugnance to those presumably the reverse, which form so large a part of what we speak of as conscience. So deep in grain have many of these common judgments come to be that their influence has passed out of consciousness; and they are obeyed automatically or instinctively without any reflection as to their moral aspect arising in the agent's mind. It is, for example, so necessary for the existence of society that the citizen should abstain from slaughtering at large, such self-restraint is so evidently reasonable, its non-observance so contrary to common sense, that when we find a murder done for mere desire of bloodshed and under the impulse of no other passion whatsoever, we do not think of the murderer as immoral, but rather as insane, judging the man who would destroy the life of society as coroners' juries by their habitual verdict upon suicides pronounce of the man who destroys his own.


Most of the habits of activity and avoidance, necessary for the mere physical existence of the individual as moral actions and abstentions are necessary for the existence of society, have long ago become automatic, and are sunk, so far as common opinion is concerned, permanently out of the purview of moral criticism. All the involuntary functions of the human body which conduce to its nutrition and maintenance in health have been gradually acquired in the course of ages, as the conditions necessary for the expression of the mere animal will to live the largest and freest life permitted by the physical environment. And as the bodily form and functions of the typical individual of each species have accrued and become established as the indispensable mechanic of the mere determination to exist, so the form and institutions of society, and the relations and mutual behavior of its individuals, have been adjusted and established as the equally indispensable conditions for the expression of the determination to exist more fully, for the enlargement of freedom and opportunity for the gratification of those passions and aspirations, the display of those energies and activities which characterize the more complex forms of life as it passes from the inorganic and vegetative to the conscious and self-conscious stages of its evolution.


The primitive forms of human society we must infer to have grown up and survived simply because they increased the efficiency of man as a feeding and a fighting animal, just as did those of the wolf, the beaver, and the ant. Society has now grown to be for man the indispensable guarantee not only of nutrition and protection, but of the opportunity to imagine and attain a thousand varieties of more refined satisfaction. So far as man has attained freedom to do and be as he desires, he has attained it only through the evolution of society. When a society perishes, as societies organically weak among stronger competitors have done and will do, the individual perishes with it, or is forced backward with impaired freedom until a fresh social integration renews and extends his powers of self-development. Societies, as has been pointed out by Sidney Webb, must safeguard their existence to-day for the very same reasons for which society has formed itself. It has grown up for the convenience of individuals, for their defense and relief under the pressure of all that was not themselves—of Nature, as we call it—beasts, and competing men, to give a little breathing space, a little elbow room, amid the storm and stress of primæval existence; and from that beginning it has been unfolded and elaborated, each step of progress effected for the convenience of active individuals, until the individual of to-day is born as a leaf upon a mighty tree, or a coral insect in a sponge, himself to live his individual life, and in living it to modify the social organism in which he has his being.


Reviewing the development in society of the conditions for the satisfaction of the individual will to live, and to live in the best way conceivable, we see in the progress of moral ideas the progress of discovery of the most reasonable manner of ordering the life of the individual and the form of social institutions under the contemporary environment. It has already been pointed out that some kinds of anti-social action are so unreasonable, so obviously prejudicial to the attainment of the common end of conscious individuals, that we brand them unhesitatingly as insane. Instances suggested were extreme personal uncleanliness or dissipation, and extreme cruelty or blood-thirstiness. The reason why other anti-social or indirectly suicidal kinds of action are not yet classed as madness, though there is a steady tendency toward so treating them, is plainly that some activities of the individual, though hurtful to other citizens just as the activity of a pack of wolves or a predatory tribe is hurtful to adjacent societies, are commonly aimed at gratifying impulses and passions which are not yet grown so rare as blood-thirst, are not yet recognized as irrational or valueless, or even are acknowledged to be in their proper scope harmless, desirable, or necessary.


It is an established social convention (in England) that it is immoral to steal or to defraud. Only in very extreme cases do we account these pursuits as evidences of mania; for though injustice and dishonesty are incompatible with the health of society, and thus actually unreasonable and indirectly suicidal, the desires which prompt men to them are only at worst exaggerations of the desire for wealth or subsistence, which every one recognizes as a necessary condition of the mere continuance of life. Nay, where the alternative is death for lack of subsistence, many consider that neither are immoral. At the other extreme, when the instinct prompts aggression in defiance of the conscious reason and without assignable purpose of gain, when Jean Valjean robs the little Savoyard, or a noble earl pockets the sugar-tongs, we speak of mental aberration or of kleptomania.


The case of self-defense is similar. Quarrelsomeness and violence are destructive of social existence, or at best impede its higher elaboration. But readiness of resentment and quickness of fist were for ages and ages necessities for individual survival; and for ages and ages more their kindred social qualities or spirit and valor were necessary for social survival, and accordingly ranked as virtues. The instruction to turn the other cheek to the smiter is even now, perhaps, an exaggeration of the precept commendable to Socialists when charged by the London police: to suffer oneself to be killed without reason is clearly and unmistakably immoral. As the western world advances out of warfare into industry, more and more of what was once military virtue becomes immorality in the individual; until an habitual ferocity which might once have qualified its subject for chieftainship may nowadays consign him to penal servitude or Bedlam.


The foregoing illustrations have been treated, for the present purpose, with reference only to the effect of the behavior of the individual upon society. It is indeed certain that anti-social action does not, as a rule, effect permanent satisfaction for the individual (isolated instances, of the type of Shelley's Count Cenci, notwithstanding); but, independently of this, the actions and propensities of the individual have always, it appears, been judged by his fellows moral or immoral chiefly according to their supposed effects upon society. The object of every living creature being to do as he pleases, if what he pleases to do incommodes other people they will take measures to restrain him from doing it. This they strive to effect by means of laws and conventional codes of morality, the main difference between the two being that the code of law is enforced by the infliction of direct personal punishment by officers of the State. This acceptance of codes of laws and conventions of morality leads to a secondary series of judgments as to right and wrong; for it comes to be accounted immoral to break the law whether the law itself be good or not, and reprehensible to depart from convention whether convention be any longer reasonable or not. This secondary morality is as it were the bud-sheath of the individual, which support he cannot dispense with until he has come to his full powers, but which he must dispense with if he is to fully realize his own freedom. Customary morality prevents him during the process of his education from pursuing his own satisfaction across the corns of his fellow creatures. In the process of education he learns that for the unit in society the word self includes more than the individual: the infant very soon finds out that what disagrees with his mother disagrees with him; the child, that the failure of his father's income means misery and hunger to the family. To say nothing of the facts of sympathy, every man born into an advanced society is early made aware that the satisfaction of his mere material needs depends upon the activities of that society around him quite as much as upon his own. All through the growth of nations and societies the complexity of this interdependence of individuals has increased, the areas of social consciousness have been extended and unified, from the solitary cave-dweller to the family or horde, from the tribe to the nation, and from the nation, by commerce, to the world, till the fortunes of each people have power over the hopes and fears of workers in every other, and the arts, the learning, and the literature of a hundred painful civilizations are available for us to-day, all the kingdoms of the earth and their glory displayed in a moment of time.


But not by bread alone does mankind live. Very early in the course of human evolution must the type of individual to whom all society was repugnant have been eliminated and suppressed by natural selection. The social instinct, the disposition to find comfort in comradeship independently of its material advantages, is of such evident antiquity in Man that we are justified in speaking of it as one of his fundamental and elementary characteristics. It is easy enough to suggest theories of the origin of this adhesiveness, this affection, this sympathy, in the conditions of racial survival: the important fact for us is its remarkable susceptibility of cultivation and extension. The individual in society does that which is pleasant to his friends, and abstains from doing that which is unpleasant, not because he likes to be thought a good fellow, or expects benefits in return, but simply because it gives him immediate pleasure so to act. He is sensitive to that which hurts them, not because he fears that his own defenses are weakened by their injury, but because they have actually become part of himself by the extension of his consciousness over them. This social instinct, this disposition to benevolent sympathy, appears almost as inextinguishable as the personal desire of life; in innumerable instances it has proved far stronger.


The recognition by each individual of his dependence on society or sensitiveness to his own interest, and his affection toward society or sensitiveness to its interest: these two faces of the same fact represent an intricate tissue of social consciousness extremely sensitive to all kinds of anti-social, or immoral, action. The moral education of the individual appears formally as the process of learning, by sheer extension of knowledge and experience, and nothing else, how he may harmonize and follow out his own desires in these two aspects and their combinations. He has to learn how to provide for the needs of his bodily life in a manner that will not interfere with the freedom of others to do the same. Laws and conventions of morality guide him at first in this respect; but the man cannot be said to be free until he acts morally, because, foreseeing that on the satisfaction of these primary needs new desires will emerge whose satisfaction will give him a more exquisite contentment, he perceives that it is reasonable so to act. The existence and stability of society are the indispensable guarantee for the general satisfaction of the primary desires of individuals, therefore it is unreasonable to weaken society by immoral action; but much more are the existence and health of society indispensable conditions for the common birth and satisfaction of the secondary desires, the desires which have created all that is most valuable in civilization and which find their satisfaction in art, in culture, in human intercourse, in love. The moral education of the individual is the lesson, not that desire is evil, and that he can only attain his freedom by ceasing to desire, for this is death, or desertion, and the army of the living presses on to fuller life; but that the wider, fuller satisfaction is built upon the simpler, and common morality a condition of its possibility; that there are certain manners and methods in which, if he goes about to save his life, he most infallibly will lose it; and that love, the social instinct, and science, which is ordered knowledge, are his only reliable tutors in practical morality.


But man in society not only lives his individual life: he also modifies the form of social institutions in the direction indicated by reason—in such a manner, that is, as it seems to his understanding will render them more efficient for securing freedom for that life of his. And just as certain forms of individual activity, in their passage into and through the field of positive criticism, appear first as indifferent, because they seem to concern the individual only, then as moral or immoral, because recognized as affecting society, later as simply rational or insane, morality having here formally attained its identification with reason and immorality with folly, and at last become habitual, instinctive, and unconscious; so institutions, originating in modes apparently accidental, come to be recognized as useful and valuable additions to the machinery of existence, are buttressed with all the authority and sanction of religion, and finally pass into unquestioned acceptance by the common-sense of men. In time some fundamental change in the conditions of the life of individuals is introduced by causes similarly unforseen; the form of the old institution ceases to subserve the common end; it begins to cramp the freedom of the majority, who no longer require its support. Meanwhile it has established a minority, ostensibly controlling it for the common weal, in a position to administer it in the sole interest of their class. These, as their existence appears dependent on their so administering it, cannot be untaught the habit except by such modification of the institution as will render it again impossible for any class to have a special interest in its contemporary form.


This process is so familiar in history that it would be a waste of time here to illustrate it by tracing it in the growth of monarchies, aristocracies, priesthoods, chattel slavery, feudal bondage, representative government, or others of its innumerable manifestations. The institution of private property in certain things is in many respects so reasonable and convenient for the majority of mankind, and was so conspicuously advantageous for those stronger individuals under whose leadership the beginnings of tribal civilizations were developed, that very early in their history it received the sanction of moral convention, religion, and law. It was obviously necessary for the establishment of industrial society that each man should own the product of his labor and the tools necessary for him to labor effectually. But the Industrial Revolution described in the third paper of this series has entirely changed the conditions under which men produce wealth, and the character of the tools with which they work, while the sanctions of law and conventional morality still cling to all that has been imported under the old definition of property. If the idea so constantly appealed to in justification of property law is to be realized; if the fruits of each man's labor*81 are to be guaranteed to him and he is to own the instruments with which he works; if the laws of property are not to establish a parasitic class taking tribute from the labor of others in the forms of Rent and Interest, then we must modify our administration of property. We must admit that as the agricultural laborer cannot individually own the farm he works on and its stock, as the factory hand cannot individually own the mill, land and industrial capital are things in which private property is impossible except on condition of a small minority owning all such property and the great majority none at all.


Socialists contend that this system of private property in land and capital is actively destructive of the conditions in which alone the common morality necessary for happy social life is possible. Without any demand upon the faith of those persons who deny the capacity of average human nature for the temperance and kindliness indispensable for the success of a true coöperative commonwealth, they assert that this modern development of the property system (a development of the last few generations only, and unprecedented in the history of the world) is more and more forcing the individual into anti-social disposition and action, and thereby destroying the promise of free and full existence which only the health and progressive development of the social organism can give him. It has become plainly reasonable that when this is the effect of our property system we should modify our institutions in the direction which will give us freedom, just as we modified the institutions which subjected us to a feudal aristocracy, and abolished for ever the laws which enabled one man to hold another as his chattel slave.


There is on record a Greek proverb, that so soon as a man has insured a livelihood, then he should begin to practice virtue. We all protest that he will do well to practice virtue under any circumstances; but we admit on reflection that our judgment as to what is virtuous action depends upon the circumstances under which action is to be taken. Whether we approve the killing of one man by another depends entirely on the circumstances of the case; and there is scarcely one of the acts which our laws regard as criminal, which could not, under imaginable circumstances, be justified. Our laws, and our conventional opinions as to what conduct is moral or immoral, are adapted to the ordinary circumstances of the average man in society, society being in them presumed to be homogeneous, not to contain in itself essential distinctions between classes, or great contrasts between the conditions of individuals.


But that element in our private property system which is at present the main object of the Socialist attack, the individual ownership of the instruments of production, land and capital, in an age when the use of those instruments has become coöperative, results, and must inevitably result, as the foregoing dissertations have sought to prove, in the division of society into two classes, whose very livelihood is insured to them by methods essentially different. The livelihood of the typical proletarian is earned by the exercise of his faculties for useful activity: the livelihood of the typical capitalist, or owner of property, is obtained, without any contribution of his or her activity, in the form of a pension called rent, interest, or dividend, guaranteed by law out of the wealth produced from day to day by the activities of the proletariat.


Observe the effect of this distinction in moral phenomena. Most of our common opinions as to social morality are adapted to a society in which every citizen is contributing active service. The most ancient and universal judgments of mankind as to the virtues of industry, of honesty, of loyalty and forbearance between man and man, of temperance, fortitude and just dealing, point to the elementary conditions necessary for the survival and strengthening of societies of equal and free individuals dependent for their subsistence upon the exercise of each one's abilities, and upon his fitness for coöperation with his fellows. But where a class or society exists, not dependent upon its own industry, but feeding like a parasite upon another society or class; when the individuals of such a parasitic society in no way depend for their livelihood or their freedom upon their fitness for coöperation one with another among themselves, or upon any personal relation with the class that feeds them; then the observation of the moral conventions of industrial and coöperative societies is in many respects quite unnecessary for the continuance of the life of the parasitic society, or for the pleasant existence of the individuals composing it. All that is necessary is that the established laws and conventions should continue to be observed by the industrial class ("it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful"); and as the existence of the propertied class in modern societies does depend ultimately upon the observance by the bulk of the people of this conventional morality, the propertied class professes publicly to venerate and observe conventions which in its private practice it has long admitted to be obsolete. This complication is a perennial source of cant. To this we owe the spectacle of Sir William Harcourt advocating total abstinence, of Mr. Arthur Balfour commending Christianity; to this the continual inculcation of industry and thrift by idle and extravagant people, with many another edifying variation on the theme of Satan's reproval of sin. Temperance, Christian morality, industry, and economy are of considerable social utility; but for the members of a propertied class they are not necessitated by the conditions of its existence, and consequently in such classes are neither observed nor commonly made the subject of moral criticism.


Consider the case of industry alone—of the moral habit of earning one's subsistence by useful activity. Assuming sustenance to be guaranteed, there is no obvious and pressing social necessity for such exertion. No doubt the paradise of the maid-of-all-work—where she means to do nothing for ever and ever—is the paradise of an undeveloped intelligence. A society relieved of the function of providing its own material sustenance need not relapse into general torpor, though the result is very commonly that an individual so circumstanced relapses into uselessness. It will be vain to preach to such an individual that he will find his fullest satisfaction in honest toil: he will simply laugh in your face, and go out partridge shooting, hunting, or yachting, or to Monte Carlo or the Rocky Mountains, finding in such an exercise of his capacities the keenest imaginable enjoyment for months in succession. He may feel no inclination at all to work for the benefit of the people whose work is supporting him: all that he, like the rest of us, requires is to find some means of passing his time in an agreeable or exciting manner. Accordingly, in that section of our nation which speaks of itself as "society," being indeed a society separated by economic parasitism from the common mass, we find that the characteristic activity is the provision of agreeable and exciting methods of passing time. This being the end of fashionable society, its code of morality is naturally quite different from the code suitable for industrial societies. Truthfulness is preached in these as a cardinal virtue. Lying is of course common enough in all classes, and is generally immoral; but in the fashionable world it is not only a perfectly legitimate means of avoiding an undesired visitor, or almost any other unpleasant experience: it is a positive necessity of conventional politeness and good manners. It is really harmless here, almost a virtue. To return to the virtue of industry: though the conventional morality of the people, necessary for the life of the nation, permeates with its vibrations this parasitic society which it enfolds; and though the unfailing contentment which a really intelligent man finds in social activity keeps a good many of the propertied class usefully occupied, the actual public opinion of that class is absolutely in accordance with the conditions of their life. The clerk in a Government office is congratulated by middle-class acquaintances on his luck in obtaining a berth where he need do no more work than he chooses; and it is habitually assumed that he will choose, like the Trafalgar Square fountains, to play from ten to four, with an interval for lunch. That may or may not be an adequate account of his activities: the significant thing is that such an assumption should not be considered insulting. But how indignantly will the very same acquaintances denounce the idleness and untrustworthiness of a British working man suspected, in the service of a private master, of interpreting his time work as most servants of the public are good humoredly assumed, without hint of disapproval, to interpret theirs!


This obsolescence of elementary social morality is most noticeable in women dependent upon incomes from property. They are doubly removed from the primary conditions of life; they are less likely than their men folk to be engaged in any work of perceptible social utility outside of their own homes; and their intellectual education being generally far more imperfect, it is only natural that their ideas of morality should be still more intimately adapted to the conditions of their class, and less to the general conditions of human society. The angels of heaven, we have always understood, are exempt from the apparatus of digestion, and are clothed as freely as the lilies of the field. In any society where all common needs are so supplied it would be immoral, surely, because a waste of time, to work as for a living. Now the universal ideal of capitalism is that man, being created a little lower than the angels, should raise himself to their level in this respect by the acquisition of property, a process pleasantly described as attaining a competence or independence, that is to say, the right to be dependent and incompetent. The result of this has been a prejudice, which only within quite recent years has begun to be seriously shaken, that it is humiliating, even disgraceful, for a lady to have to earn her own living at all, for a gentleman to practice a handicraft for money, for a nobleman to go into trade: a prejudice for which, in a class society, there was much justification, but which is obviously a fragment of class morality directly antagonistic to the common social morality which recognizes all useful industry as praiseworthy. It is now yielding to economic pressure and to the stimulus of the desire to get rich. Ladies are being driven, and in spite of Mr. Walter Besant's protestations will continue to be driven, into most of the female handicrafts, though some are still outside the pale of respectability. Ranching in America, though not yet drovering and butchering in England, is suitable occupation for the aristocracy. The "directing" of companies and the patronizing of nitrogenous Volunteer Colonels*82 are legitimate modes of exploiting of a title. The prejudice against useful employments is balanced for decency's sake by a hypocritical laudation of useless ones. The fiction so dear to the Primrose Dame, that the rich are the employers of the poor, the idlers the supporters of the industrious, takes nowadays forms more insidious than the rugged proposition that private vices are public benefits. The amusements, the purely recreational activities, of country gentlemen are glorified in the National Review*83 as "hard work." It is pretended that the leisured class is the indispensable patron and promoter of culture and the fine arts. The claim that such functions are virtues is a direct concession to the feeling that some effort must be made to exhibit the practices of parasitic society as compatible with its preaching of the common social morality.


The same necessity causes an exaggerated tribute of praise to be paid to such really useful work as is done under no compulsion but that of the social instinct. This kind of activity is habitually pointed to, by the friends of those who are engaged in it, as evidence of extraordinary virtue. A few hours of attention every week to the condition of the poor, a few gratuitously devoted to local administration, a habit of industry in any branch of literature or science: these are imputed as an excess of righteousness by persons who denounce the wage laborer as an idler and a shirk. Such activity is work of supererogation, approved but not required or expected. The motto of "noblesse oblige" has not been adopted by the plutocracy. Similar approbation and admiration are extended to those who, while already earning their living by a reasonable day's work, employ their spare time, or a part of it, in gratuitous activities of the kinds referred to. It may be safely said that by far the greater portion of this kind of work is done by people who are simultaneously earning an income in middle class professions or by the less exhausting forms of wage labor. Most of them have probably had experience of the ridiculous inappropriateness of the commendation usually paid to their gratuitous energy by well-to-do friends. The activity is moral, no doubt; but its exercise gives no sensation of virtue or praiseworthiness: it is followed because it is seen to be reasonable, because it is the path indicated by common sense toward the satisfaction of the individual passion for the extension of freedom and love.


The phenomena of class morality are ancient and familiar enough. They have varied throughout history with the changing character of the basis of class distinctions. The great permanent distinction of sex, and the social relations between man and woman which have arisen thereout in the period of civilization from which the world is now emerging, have resulted not only in the establishment of distinct codes of chastity for the sexes, but also in innumerable prejudices against the participation of one sex or the other in activities having nothing whatever to do with physiological distinction. They have even succeeded in producing, through inequality of freedom and education, well marked differences in mental habit, which show themselves continually when men and women are confronted with the same questions of truthfulness, honor, or logic. It is hardly necessary to observe that most of these differences are distinctly traceable to the institution of private property, and to its concentration in the hands of the male as the stronger individual in a competitive society. The class moralities of societies whose orders have been based immediately on status or caste have formed the subject of an extensive literature. The tracing of all such distinctions to their root in economic circumstances is scarcely less interesting than the investigation of the same foundation for sex morality. But even the interpreters of the Church Catechism have abandoned the appeal to status as the basis of duty; the idea of hereditary aristocracy is dead; and class distinctions and their appurtenant ethics are now founded directly and obviously on property.


We have glanced at some effects of our present property system which work continually for the destruction of the traditions of social morality in the capitalist class. The fundamental idea of that system, that man can live without working, as the angels of heaven, is (fortunately) self-contradictory in this respect, that in human society no class can so live except by the double labor of another class or classes. The would-be angelic society on earth must either own chattel slaves, or be a military caste taking tribute, or a parasitical and exploiting class extracting rent and interest by the operation of the industrial system analyzed in the preceding papers. Such a class and such a system are, as we are all becoming aware, more virulently revolutionary in their operation, and more certain to bring about their own destruction than either chattel slavery or feudalism. Of these three phases of human injustice that of wage slavery will surely be the shortest. But meanwhile the propertied class assumes to represent civilization; its approved morality is preached and taught in church and schools; it debases our public opinion; and it directly poisons all that host of workers who are at present hangers-on of the rich, whether as menial servants or as ministering to their especial amusements and extravagance. There is no such snob as a fashionable dressmaker; and there is no class of the proletariat so dehumanized as the class of domestic servants.


Now if these results are effected in the class whose livelihood is assured, and whose education and culture have given it a hold on the higher inducements to morality—if we here find morality strangled at the root and starving, what shall we find when we turn to the masses whose livelihood is not assured them? Our Greek, perhaps, would say that it was impossible for them to practice virtue, just as Plato in his Republic suggested that only the philosophic class could be really moral, since slaves and the proletariat could not receive the intellectual education necessary to train the reason. The great bulk of the wage earning class in modern civilized countries is so far assured of its livelihood that it remains thoroughly permeated with common social morality. It is, from habit and preference, generally industrious and kindly, thus exhibiting the two most important qualifications for the social life. It remains to a great extent honest, though competition and capitalism are directly antagonistic to honesty. The decalogue of commercial morality has its own peculiar interpretation of stealing, murder, false witness and coveting; and yet the most unscrupulous wrecker in the City will be outraged in his finest feelings by the class morality of the plumber, who, called in to bring the gas to reason, takes the opportunity to disorganize the water-supply and introduce a duster into the drain. The employer is aghast at the increase of idleness and bad workmanship under a system in which the good workman knows that to work his best will not only not be worth his while but will lead to the exaction of heavier tasks from his fellows.


But it is not in the mass of the proletariat that the action of our property system in destroying elementary morality is most conspicuous. It is in those whom it excludes even from the proletariat proper that this extreme result is clearest. The characteristic operation of the modern industrial economy is continually and repeatedly to thrust out individuals or bodies of the workers from their settlement in the social organism—to eject, as it were, the coral insect from the cell in which he is developing. The capitalist farming system expels the agricultural laborer from the village: the machine expels the craftsman from the ranks of skilled labor: the perpetual competition and consolidation of capital in every trade alternately destroys employment in that trade and disorganizes others. Over-production in one year leaves thousands of workers wageless in the next. The ranks of unskilled labor, the army of the unemployed, are day by day recruited in these fashions. An inveterate social habit, an almost indestructible patience, a tenacious identification of his own desire with the desire of those whom he loves, in most cases preserve the worker from accepting the sentence of exclusion from society. If he is able-bodied, intelligent and fortunate, he will struggle with hard times till he finds fresh occupation among strange surroundings; but woe to him if he be weakly, or old, or unpractical. In such a case he will almost infallibly become a pauper or an outcast, one of that residuum of unskilled, unemployed, unprofitable and hopeless human beings which in all great cities festers about the base of the social pyramid. And his children will become the street Arabs and the cornerboys and the child-whores, and the sneak-thieves who, when they come of age, accept their position as outside of social life and resume the existence of the wild beasts that fathered man—the purely predatory and unsocial activity of harrying their neighbors for their own support. Before society was, morality was not: those who have no part nor lot in the ends for which society exists will adapt their morality to suit their outcast state: there will indeed be honor among thieves, just as there will be cant and insincerity among the parasitic rich; but the youth who has been nurtured between the reformatory and the slum has little chance of finding a foothold, if he would, in the restless whirl of modern industry, and still less of retaining permanently such foothold as he may manage to find.


When the conditions of social life are such that the individual may be excluded through no unfitness of his own for coöperation, or may be born without a chance of acquiring fitness for it, we are brought face to face with the conditions of primitive ages. And if you force him back upon the elemental instincts, one of two things will happen. Either, if the individual is weak through physical deterioration or incapacity to combine with his fellow outcasts, he will be crushed and killed by society and putrefy about its holy places; or, if he has indomitable life and vigor, he will revert to the argument of elemental forces: he will turn and explode society. Here, then, we should fear explosion, for we are not as submissive in extremities as the proletariats of arrested Indian civilizations. But with us the class whose freedom is incessantly threatened by the operation of private capitalism is the class which by its political position holds in its hands the key to the control of industrial form: that is to say, its members can modify, as soon as they elect to, the laws of property and inheritance in this State of Britain. They can, as soon as they see clearly what is needed, supersede institutions now immoral because useless and mischievous by institutions which shall re-establish the elementary conditions of social existence and the possibility of the corresponding morality—namely, the opportunity for each individual to earn his living and the compulsion upon him to do so.


Returning from the consideration of the "residuum" and the "criminal classes," we find that even the workers of the employed proletariat are by no means wholly moral. In spite of the massive healthiness of their behavior in ordinary relations, they are generally coarse in their habits; they lack intelligence in their amusements and refinement in their tastes. The worst result of this is the popularity of boozing and gambling and allied forms of excitement, with their outcomes in violence and meanness. But when once society has insured for man the opportunity for satisfying his primary needs—once it has insured him a healthy body and a wholesome life, his advance in the refinements of social morality, in the conception and satisfaction of his secondary and more distinctly human desires, is solely and entirely a matter of education. This will be attested by every man and woman who has at all passed through the primary to the secondary passions. But education in the sense alluded to is impossible for the lad who leaves school at fourteen and works himself weary six days in the week ever afterward.


The oldest socialistic institution of considerable importance and extent is the now decrepit Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has always insisted on the duty of helping the poor, not on the ground of the social danger of a "residuum," but by the nobler appeal to the instinct of human benevolence. The Catholic Church developed, relatively to the enlightenment of its age, the widest and freest system of education the world has ever seen before this century. Catholic Christianity, by its revolutionary conception that God was incarnated in Man, exploding the hideous superstition that the imagination of the thoughts of man's heart was only to do evil continually, and substituting the faith in the perfectibility of each individual soul; by its brilliant and powerful generalizations that God must be Love, because there is nothing better, and that man is freed from the law by the inward guidance of grace, has done more for social morality than any other religion of the world.


Protestant Individualism in England shattered the Catholic Church; founded the modern land system upon its confiscated estates; destroyed the mediæval machinery of charity and education; and in religion rehabilitated the devil, and the doctrines of original sin and the damnable danger of reason and good works.


Out of the wreckage of the Catholic Church, and amid the dissolution of the Protestant religion, there successively emerged, at an interval of some three hundred years, the two great socialistic institutions of the Poor Law and the People's Schools. As the pretense of a foundation of Christian obligation withered from out of the Poor Law, till it has come to be outspokenly recognized as nothing but a social safety-valve, the individualist and commercial administration of this rudimentary socialistic machinery deprived it of its efficiency even in this elementary function. He to whom the workhouse means the break up of his home, and his own condemnation to a drudgery insulting because useless and wasteful, would as lief take his exclusion from Society in another and a less degrading way, either by death or by reluctant enrollment in the "residuum"; and so it has come to pass that outside of their use as hospitals for the aged and infirm, the poor houses are principally employed as the club-houses and hotels of the great fraternity of habitual tramps and cadgers; and not till he has sunk to this level does the struggling proletarian seek "work" there.


Socialists would realize the idea of the Poor Law, regarding that society as deadly sick in which the individual cannot find subsistence by industry, in the only way in which it can be realized: namely, by the organization of production and the resumption of its necessary instruments. It is not so great a matter in their eyes that the perpetual toll of rent and interest deprives the workers of the wealth which their activities produce; nor is it the actual pressure of this heavy tribute that would force on the Social Revolution, if the system only left men the assurance of the comforts of tame beasts. It is the constant disquiet and uncertainty, the increasing frequency of industrial crises,*84 that are the revolutionary preachers of our age; and it is the disappearance at the base and at the summit of society of the conditions of social morality that rouses those whose mere material interests remain unaffected.


But though it is not envy or resentment at this tribute that mostly moves us to our warfare, this tribute we must certainly resume if the ideal of the school is to effect its social purpose. For the ideal of the school implies, in the first place, leisure to learn: that is to say, the release of children from all non-educational labor until mind and physique have had a fair start and training, and the abolition of compulsion on the adult to work any more than the socially necessary stint. The actual expenditure on public education must also be considerably increased, at any rate until parents are more generally in a position to instruct their own children. But as soon as the mind has been trained to appreciate the inexhaustible interest and beauty of the world, and to distinguish good literature from bad, the remainder of education, granted leisure, is a comparatively inexpensive matter. Literature is become dirt-cheap; and all the other educational arts can be communally enjoyed. The schools of the adult are the journal and the library, social intercourse, fresh air, clean and beautiful cities, the joy of the fields, the museum, the art-gallery, the lecture-hall, the drama, and the opera; and only when these schools are free and accessible to all will the reproach of proletarian coarseness be done away.


Yet the most important influence in the repairing of social morality may perhaps be looked for not so much from the direct action of these elements of the higher education as from those very socialist forms of property and industry which we believe to be the primary condition for allowing such higher education to affect the majority at all. Nothing so well trains the individual to identify his life with the life of society as the identification of the conditions of his material sustenance with those of his fellows, in short, as industrial coöperation. Not for many centuries has there been such compulsion as now for the individual to acknowledge a social ethic. For now, for the first time since the dissolution of the early tribal communisms, and over areas a hundred times wider than theirs, the individual worker earns his living, fulfills his most elementary desire, not by direct personal production, but by an intricate coöperation in which the effect and value of his personal effort are almost indistinguishable. The apology for individualist appropriation is exploded by the logic of the facts of communist production: no man can pretend to claim the fruits of his own labor; for his whole ability and opportunity for working are plainly a vast inheritance and contribution of which he is but a transient and accidental beneficiary and steward; and his power of turning them to his own account depends entirely upon the desires and needs of other people for his services. The factory system, the machine industry, the world commerce, have abolished individualist production; and the completion of the coöperative form toward which the transition state of individualist capitalism is hurrying us will render a conformity with social ethics a universal condition of tolerable existence for the individual.


This expectation is already justified by the phenomena of contemporary opinion. The moral ideas appropriate to Socialism are permeating the whole of modern society. They are clearly recognizable not only in the proletariat, but also in the increasing philanthropic activity of members of the propertied class, who, while denouncing Socialism as a dangerous exaggeration of what is necessary for social health, work honestly enough for alleviatory reforms which converge irresistibly toward it. The form, perhaps, does not outrun the spirit, any more than the spirit anticipates the form; and it may have been sufficient in this paper to have shown some grounds for the conviction that Socialist morality, like that of all preceding systems, is only that morality which the conditions of human existence have made necessary; that it is only the expression of the eternal passion of life seeking its satisfaction through the striving of each individual for the freest and fullest activity; that Socialism is but a stage in the unending progression out of the weakness and the ignorance in which society and the individual alike are born, toward the strength and the enlightenment in which they can see and choose their own way forward—from the chaos where morality is not to the consciousness which sees that morality is reason; and to have made some attempt to justify the claim that the cardinal virtue of Socialism is nothing else than Common Sense.

Notes for this chapter

Many Socialists would not accept this statement of the moral basis of Socialism. Christian Socialists in particular, find a very different "moral basis." But all Socialists believe in some moral basis, and their constant appeal to the moral sense has been marked and has formed the strongest point in their claims.—Am. Ed.
The Quintessence of Socialism. Humboldt Library, No. 124.
e.g., see Communism and Socialism, by Theodore D. Woolsey.
Many Socialists, including all Christian Socialists, believe that environment (in its largest sense) is only one among other elements that go to produce and modify character. To Christian Socialists, Socialism is not "the process" but a part of "The Way." See Civilization: its Cause and Cure, by Ed. Carpenter. (Humboldt Publishing Co.)—Am. Ed.
Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism. Oscar Wilde, in The Soul of Man Under Socialism. (Humboldt Pub. Co., No. 147.)
To the intelligent Socialist this phrase has, of course, no meaning. But against the non-Socialist who employs it it may be legitimately used, ad captandum.
Col. North.—Am. Ed.
See National Review for February, 1888, "Are Rich Land-owners Idle?" by Lady Janetta Manners (now Duchess of Rutland).
The Trusts will prevent the recurrence of any more industrial crises in the United States.—Am. Ed.

The Basis of Socialism, Economic, by G. Bernard Shaw.

End of Notes

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