George Walford: The Enduring Base (3)

Supernatural Powers: “When I wrote Chinese Looking Glass, certain superficial critics in England sneered at me for suggesting that superstitious belief and religious custom had survived Communism in China itself. The Chinese Communists, being rather better acquainted with the subject, have repeatedly admitted that the supernatural has been among their most stubborn ideological foes.” (Dennis Bloodworth, An Eye for the Dragon Penguin 1975)

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Private Ownership: We have usually spoken here of the enduring base as a continuing belief in supernatural powers, but this is not its only feature; this belief is commonly accompanied by an attachment to private ownership of the means of production. According to the revolutionary left it is this, even more than the belief in supernatural powers, that is responsible for the ills that affect our society. According to them the solution for social problems is the elimination of private ownership. But this solution itself entails a problem: How is it to be achieved?

Three principal answers have been suggested. The first was given by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto, 1848. He predicted that increasing immiseration would induce the working class to overthrow their oppressors. This theory has been largely abandoned; few left-wingers of any sophistication now maintain that immiseration will produce revolution. The next solution, (already hinted at in the Manifesto) was developed by Lenin and his collaborators; they intended a party of professional revolutionaries who would break the chains and lead the workers to the promised land. Parties of this type have managed to seize power in Russia, China, Cuba and elsewhere, but the outcome has not been encouraging; life there is not noticeably better than life in the unrevolutionised countries. The third answer is given by the anarchists and anarcho-socialists: if the people do not recognise private ownership as the source of social evils they must be taught to do so; a society based on common ownership will not develop automatically and it cannot be imposed by a minority; it can dome only as a volitional act on the part of the general body of the people.

In the order given, each of these solutions emerged from the failure (demonstrated in theory, in practice or in both) of the previous one.

They form a series with rationality playing an increasing part. In the first solution only the observer was rational, the revolution itself a consequence of blind social processes. In the second a rational minority was to be an active agent, and the third presumes universal rationality.

The third solution has done no better than the first or second; it has not produced even the appearance of success, nor any sign that it is likely to do so. The appeal to rationality can be carried no farther. If we are to be rational we have to accept that this method also has been proven, so far as it is possible to prove anything in social affairs, incapable of bringing about the change envisaged.

As “rationality” is used by the revolutionary left the attachment of working people to private ownership is an irrational one, but “rationality” is not a synonym for “effectiveness.” Over a wide range of behaviour we act most effectively when we are guided not by reason but by custom, habit and prescription, and so it is with the behaviour required for production of the means of life. The evidence for this, evidence which the left strive to ignore, is that this class-divided, private-ownership society enables five thousand million people to maintain themselves . There is no direct, experimental or empirical evidence whatever that anarchism, socialism or communism (as classless, common-ownership societies) would enable anybody to maintain themselves.

Class division and private ownership exist in many different forms today and there is no reason to think that they cannot be modified even further: Karl Marx, for example, has said in Value, Price and Profit that there is no law limiting the extent to which profits may be reduced (within capitalism); if he is right, then class division and private ownership do not have to result is a minority rolling in wealth and a poverty-stricken majority.

But all the evidence of some ten thousand years, all the evidence since the production of commodities first began, goes to show that private ownership and class division, in one form or another, are needed for the production of enough to maintain anything like the present population. These, too belong to the enduring base.

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AN ADDITION to IC‘s Roll of Honour: Frederic Harrison, a Victorian follower of Comte, was once obliged, for legal reasons, to persuade Karl Marx to take an oath on the Bible. (J. W. Burrow in TLS,1 Feb 85)

from Ideological Commentary 17, March 1985.