Harold Walsby: Revolt and the Masses

(Here we continue reprinting the articles Walsby contributed to the SOCIALIST LEADER, from copy supplied by Ellis Hillman. This one appeared in the issue of January 19, 1952. – GW)

A few weeks ago an article of mine appeared in these columns drawing attention to the big problem of transforming the democratic socialist movement into a mass movement for socialism. By ‘socialism’ I meant neither nationalisation nor state ownership of industry, both of which imply capitalism, complete with wage-labour, capital and capitalists; I meant the common ownership and democratic control of all the means of social production throughout the entire world, or the greater part of it.

The following week John McNair made some interesting comments on my article. Those comments now lead me to take up one or two of its points once again and develop them further. Let me say at once that John McNair’s criticism expressed no violent disagreement and was offered in a spirit of constructiveness which is both appreciated and reciprocated by the present writer.

While I agree with much of what he says in his article, I think, nevertheless, that where he feels in disagreement, it is largely based on a misunderstanding or misreading of my analysis. This misunderstanding is probably due to my own fault in a great measure – due, possibly, to my inadequate expression of the issues involved, or to the condensation of argument which is almost inevitable in a short article on so complex a topic.

John McNair pointed out that epoch-making and revolutionary changes in human society have occurred in the past without a mass conversion to the theories of the intellectual leaders of those revolutions. His argument, he says, is that ‘it is not necessary to convert huge masses of people in order to change human society.’ He cited the French and Russian Revolutions as two examples of what he had in mind. He goes on: ‘It will not be necessary to convert 200,000,000 Russians in order to replace Stalinism by a humane and reasonable system of socialism.’

Now, of course, it is quite true that the French Revolution was successfully carried through without the mass of people having any clear ideas or understanding of the theories of Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot and others. The same general truth equally applies to the Russian Revolution with respect to the theories of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and company. Nothing I have written disputes this or is in any way inconsistent with these facts.

But – and this is the most important and relevant point – it was necessary in both these revolutions to achieve the strong, determined and passionate support of huge masses of the people. Without this determined mass support neither the French nor the Russian revolutions could have been carried through successfully. Without mass support they could not have taken place at all.

While it was not necessary to convert the masses to an understanding of the theories of the revolutionary movement, it was necessary to enlist their aid, to gain their approval, co-operation and support for the proposed changes. And for large numbers of people to support and actively participate in a revolutionary social change, it is necessary for them to understand something of what is involved, even though it be very little. In short, they must be converted to an understanding of what is involved, sufficiently, at any rate, for them to support the revolution and not to oppose it.

In both of the cases quoted by John McNair, vast numbers of people understood the situation well enough to know, for example, that their ruling class and oppressors – the aristocracy, their hangers-on and supporters – had to be unseated from the ruling position of power. They knew their rulers must be dispossessed. The majority knew who their oppressors were, and they proceeded at once, when the time came, to remove and get rid of them. The people suffered, and they understood that their suffering could only be relieved by the elimination of those whose position in the social system was a necessary condition of their suffering.

Let us try to get a firmer grasp of these matters by viewing them in their historical and evolutionary context and by relating them to a more general principle.

The social evolution of man is part and parcel of a wider and more general evolutionary process. It is, indeed, a very recent stage in the universal evolution of matter, a stage in which developmental changes occur with much greater rapidity than in previous stages. But not only does development occur more quickly in social evolution than in, say, biological evolution, but also, the later stages of social evolution exhibit more rapid growth and change than its earlier stages. Man is the produce of some two thousand million years of biological evolution. At the outside, he is but the result of half-a-million years of social development. And civilization is not much more than five or six thousand years old. What are the causes of this speeding-up of the process as evolution proceeds?

One of the main reasons is that consciousness and understanding become more and more involved in the evolutionary process. As consciousness evolves, it tends to intrude itself increasingly into the course of evolution, to become more and more a part of the very mechanism of the process. It becomes an increasingly effective and efficient agent of further progress, and tends, first to supplement, and then to supplant, the older mechanisms of natural selection, genetic mutation, etc.

Socially, man has changed out of all recognition since the days of the early cave-man. But there is no evidence, according to Professor Julian Huxley in a recent broadcast, that man’s genetic nature ‘has in any way improved since the time of the Aurignacian cave-man.’ Men, he says, have become the agents of further revolution.

Because of the thousands of years of man’s social activity, the physical environment of man is no longer the hostile, ruthless environment it once was. It no longer ruthlessly weeds out and destroys the ‘unfit’ – i.e. those individuals who are not well adapted to its hostile and rigorous nature. It no longer ruthlessly and rigorously selects for physical survival just those who are able to stand up to whatever hostile changes may take place in the evolving material conditions. Struggle for social position has largely replaced struggle for physical survival.

We may look at it like this: the more that man proceeds, consciously and directly, to change and adapt his material environment to his growing needs – his changing nature -‘the less does the material environment change and adapt man directly to its changes.

Primitive man, in a word, was moulded by the material conditions of his environment much more directly than is modern civilised man. And as history and social development advance, this tendency becomes increasingly the case.

It follows that (other factors being equal) the more ignorant men are of the nature of the material conditions of their environment, the more they are directly influenced by the immediate appearance of those conditions and by the appearance of immediate changes which take place in the conditions. They tend to see their environment only in terms of how it appears at any particular moment, and moreover, at any particular moment for them alone.

Conversely, the more men understand their environment, the less directly are they influenced by its immediate appearance and by immediate changes in its conditions – i.e. the more do they tend to see their environment in terms of its evolutionary and historical context, in the broader terms of the direction of its development in time and of its conditions as they affect large masses of people.

From seeing his surroundings from a purely personal and immediate viewpoint, man progresses, then, with his increased understanding, to seeing them from an impersonal, a more general and long-term point of view. He becomes more detached in his outlook. His viewpoint becomes more social and general. His understanding, his judgment and reasoning become more independent of immediate changes and appearances of the material conditions at any given place or moment.

The application of these facts to our problem is not difficult to see. There is, however, one pitfall we must avoid if we are to apply them properly. This pitfall is the common error of supposing that evolution, particularly the evolution of man’s consciousness, advances evenly and uniformly, affecting all individuals and groups alike.

Every evolving aggregate tends, on the whole, towards disuniformity and multiformity. Each aggregate differentiates into sub-groups of higher and lower levels of organisation. As these sub-groups or parts grow more specialised in their activities and functions, they also become more mutually dependent and integrated – thus producing ever-greater variety within a richer and more comprehensive unity. All the diversity, richness and variety of the world in which we live is a factual testimony and first-hand proof of this general evolutionary tendency. And the development of man’s consciousness and understanding is no exception to the general rule.

Already, social evolution has produced an enormous variation and diversity in the outlooks and ideologies of men. Primitive religions and superstitious outlooks still flourish alongside the most highly developed scientific attitudes – just as primitive one-celled creatures still flourish alongside the most highly organised multicellular creatures, including the highest mammals and man himself.

And similarly, just as the one-celled creatures preponderate in number over the multicelluar creatures, so do those of the lower levels of consciousness preponderate over those of the higher and more social or scientific levels. Bearing these important general truths in mind, we can proceed with our problem.

If it is the case that consciousness becomes more and more involved in the evolutionary process itself, this clearly means that man’s consciousness will play a larger part in future social evolution than it has done in the past. It does not follow, of course, that evryone, or even the great majority, will fully understand what is involved. Neither does it mean that everyone must equally understand what is involved.

But it does mean that the immense majority must understand the proposed change sufficiently to support it with unswerving determination. And to to do this they must strongly believe or plainly see that it represents their interests.

The proposed change from nationalised or state capitalism to socialism – the struggle for which, says John McNair, ‘will be infinitely more arduous’ – will likewise require mass support. Democratic socialists, however, have yet to obtain anything – at any level of understanding whatever – which even savours of mass support for this object. Part of the reason, at least, for this lack of support, is that the level of understanding needed to grasp even the simple necessity for such a change is at present not widely distributed among the world’s population.

I do not mean that vast masses of people are debarred from this understanding by reason of their genetic constitution or because of some innate biological or physiological incapacity. No, it is not that. The causes of this uneven distribution of social consciousness are connected with the fact that the social evolution of man, like evolution generally, is not uniform and even. It is a differential as well as an integrative evolution. The subject of the differentiation of levels of social understanding, and how they arise, we must . leave to a later article. But we must accept their existence.

As John McNair rightly says, ‘the vast majority of our fellow citizens are not fundamentally interested in the state of society in which they are living. Most men and women are really interested in living. In their homes and families, in their sports and recreations. We may deplore this but we cannot blink the fact.’

Mass support for a revolutionary social change is only likely, then, when the existing social order seriously interferes with what huge masses of people are interested in – that is, when it seriously interferes with their way of living, or makes living too difficult, miserable, wretched and intolerable.

But what one group of people will tolerate will not necessarily be tolerated by another. Also, standards of living tolerated by people at one period of time will not necessarily be tolerated at another – it will depend on the state of development of the productive forces and of the mass ideology.

Large-scale support is now forthcoming for the establishment of state capitalism, especially in the world’s semi-feudal and backward areas, like Asia, where it is much more of a revolutionary change. Determined mass support in these areas is possible because the conditions of life for hundreds of peciple [that looks as though it ought to read ‘millions of people’, or perhaps even ‘hundreds of
millions of people.’ Ed.] are appallingly and intolerably low.

The picture of revolutionary feeling and mass revolt is, on the other hand, very different in those countries where capitalism is already highly developed and able to provide relatively high standards of life for the workers. And so long as modern capitalism of this western pattern can continue to maintain these comparatively high living conditions, then mass interest in any fundamental social change seems – to say the least – unlikely to arise in anything but the remote future.

That brings us to the crux of our problem. Mass support for a revolutionary change involves masses of the least conscious and least enlightened elements of the revolution. But, as we have seen, the lower the understanding, the greater must be the pressure of material conditions. This is one’ of the corollaries of the important fact, already stressed, that consciousness plays a more determined and independent role in the evolutionary process as the process advances.

It means that, in order to gain mass support of a low order of understanding, the material conditions of life for the vast majority must be so bad and wretched as to be no longer tolerable. In the two instances cited by John McNair – the French and Russian Revolutions – such indeed was the case. It is the case now in much of Asia. In all these instances you have huge masses of people living at starvation level and under appalling conditions which are unknown to the mass of workers in the countries of highly-developed western capitalism.

Where this pressure from material conditions is not forthcoming, then mass support can only be gained by raising the level of mass understanding. The problem is: Can it be done?

From this viewpoint, it seems that three variables are involved in the development of any movement for revolutionary social change. These three variables are: (1) the degree of pressure of material conditions, (2) the degree or level of mass understanding, (3) the degree or amount of mass response.

The relations between these variables can be formulated mathematically and can, I think, be usefully applied not only to social development generally, but to the problems of the socialist movement in particular.

– – –

Socialism, the movement out of which communism emerged, first appeared as the creation of a few speculative minds. Each of them set up for himself in the thinking business, and each of them clung ferociously to ownership of the product. The ideas produced were, emphatically, Fourier’s (or Owen’s or Saint-Simon’s); others might use them, but only on condition that they paid a royalty of acknowledgement and respect to the originator. While doing this they decried those in the business of making material goods who behaved in the same way towards their product. Marx went beyond them mainly in attempting to levy his intellectual tribute upon the great majority, but he did not succeed. Marxism has secured an even smaller number of customers than the reformist socialism of his predecessors.

ONE STAPLE of the more cultured journals over the past year or two has been the complaint that most of the formerly small and independent publishing firms have become subsidiaries of great combines. Anthony Burgess provides a recent example in his article on “The Literature Industry” (Observer 28 Aug 88). He complains that books are becoming mass commodities, like soap, few of them anything more than ‘compilations of words with titles, jackets and blurbs.’

The only thing wrong with that seems to be the belief that there is something new about it; this is George Gissing writing on the same subject in 1891:

what hope is there for any but either very base or very extraordinary books in such an outpouring of printed matter as now comes forth every week? It is dreadful to look at the lists of new volumes in literary papers (Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft)

from Ideological Commentary 36, November 1988.