a sorry lot

This essay was originally published in the
first issue of
Monthly Review 
(May 1949)

Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social
issues to express views on the subject of socialism ?
I believe for a number of reasons that it is.

Let us first consider the question from the point of view of scientific knowledge.
It might appear that there are no essential, methodological differences between
astronomy and economics:
scientists in both fields attempt to discover laws of general acceptability for
a circumscribed group of phenomena in order to make the interconnection of these
phenomena as clearly understandable as possible.
But in reality such methodological differences do exist.
The discovery of general laws in the field of economics is made difficult
by the circumstance that observed economic phenomena are often affected by
many factors whichare very hard to evaluate separately.
In addition, the experience which has accumulated since the beginning of the so-called
civilized period of human history has—as is well known—been largely influenced and
limited by causes which are by no means exclusively economic in nature.

For example, most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest.
The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically,
as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly
of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks.
The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent
institution and created a system of values by which the people
were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But historic tradition is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really overcome
what Thorstein Veblen called ‘the predatory phase’ of human development.
The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even such laws as we can
derive from them are not applicable to other phases.

Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond
the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state
can throw little light on a socialist society of the future.
Second, socialism is directed towards a social-ethical end.
Science, however, cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings;
science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends.
But the ends themselves are conceived by personalities with lofty ethical ideals and—if
these ends are not stillborn, but vital and vigorous—are adopted and carried forward by
those many human beings who, half unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society.

For these reasons, we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and
scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not
assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves
on questions affecting the organization of society.

Innumerable voices have been asserting for some time now that human society is
passing through a crisis, that its stability has been gravely shattered.
It is characteristic of such a situation that individuals feel indifferent
or even hostile toward the group, small or large, to which they belong.
In order to illustrate my meaning, let me record here a personal experience.
I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war,
which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind, and I remarked
that only a supra-national organization would offer protection from that danger.
Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me:
“Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?”

I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made a
statement of this kind. It is the statement of a man who has striven in vain to
attain an equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope of succeeding.
It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people
are suffering in these days.
                           What is the cause? – Is there a way out?

It is easy to raise such questions, but difficult to answer them with any degree of assurance.
I must try, however, as best I can, although I am very conscious of the fact that
our feelings and strivings are often contradictory and obscure and that they cannot
be expressed in easy and simple formulas.

Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being.
As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that
of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires,
and to develop his innate abilities.
As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition & affection of his
fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in
their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life.
Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting,
strivings accounts for the special character of a man, and their specific
combination determines the extent to which an individual can achieve an
inner equilibrium and can contribute to the well-being of society.
It is quite possible that the relative strength of these two drives is,
in the main, fixed by inheritance.
But the personality that finally emerges, is largely formed by the
environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development,
by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of
that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior.

The abstract concept of ‘society’ means to the individual human being
the sum total of his direct & indirect relations to his contemporaries
and to all the people of earlier generations.
The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself;
but he depends so much upon society—in his physical, intellectual,
and emotional existence—that it is impossible to think of him,
or to understand him, outside the framework of society.
It is ‘society’ which provides man with food, clothing, a home,
the tools of work, language, the forms & content of thought;
his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments
of the many millions of people, past & present, who are all hidden
behind the small word ‘society’.

It is evident, that the dependence of the individual upon society is a fact
of nature which cannot be abolished—just as in the case of ants and bees.
However, while the whole life process of ants and bees is fixed down to the
smallest detail by rigid, hereditary instincts, the social patterns and
interrelationships of human beings are very variable & susceptible to change.
Memory, the capacity to make new combinations, the gift of oral communication
have made possible developments among human being which are not dictated by
biological necessities. Such developments manifest themselves in traditions,
institutions, and organizations; in literature; in scientific & engineering
accomplishments; in the works of art.
This explains how it happens that, in a certain sense, man can
influence his life through his own conduct, and that in this process
conscious thinking and wanting can play a part.

Man acquires at birth, through heredity, a biological constitution
which we must consider fixed and unalterable, including the natural
urges which are characteristic of the human species.
In addition, during his lifetime, he acquires a cultural constitution
which he adopts from society through communication and through
many other types of influences.
It is this cultural constitution which, with the passage of time,
is subject to change and which determines to a very large extent the
relationship between the individual & society.
Modern anthropology has taught us, through comparative investigation of
so-called primitive cultures, that the social behavior of human beings
may differ greatly, depending upon prevailing cultural patterns and the
types of organization which predominate in society.
It is on this that those who are striving to improve the lot
of man may ground their hopes: human beings are not condemned,
because of their biological constitution, to annihilate each other
or to be at the mercy of a cruel, self-inflicted fate.

If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural
attitude of man should be changed in order to make human life
as satisfying as possible, we should constantly be conscious of
the fact that there are certain conditions which we are unable to modify.
As mentioned before, the biological nature of man is, for all practical
purposes, not subject to change.
Furthermore, technological and demographic developments of the last few
centuries have created conditions which are here to stay.
In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are
indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor
and a highly-centralized productive apparatus are absolutely necessary.
The time—which, looking back, seems so idyllic—is gone forever when
individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes
even now a planetary community of production and consumption.

I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what
to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time.

It concerns the relationship of the individual to society.

The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence
upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset,
as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his
natural rights, or even to his economic existence.
Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of
his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives,
which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate.
All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from
this process of deterioration.
Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely,
and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life.
Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is,
only through devoting himself to society.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is,
in my opinion, the real source of the evil.
We see before us a huge community of producers the members
of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the
fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole
in faithful compliance with legally established rules.
In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that
is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing
consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be,
and for the most part is, the private property of individuals.

For the sake of simplicity, in the discussion that follows,
I shall call ‘workers’ all those who do not share in the
ownership of the means of production—although this does not
quite correspond to the customary use of the term.
The owner of the means of production is in a position
to purchase the labor power of the worker.
By using the means of production, the worker produces
new goods which become the property of the capitalist.
The essential point about this process is the relation between what the worker
produces and what he is paid, both measured in terms of real value.
Insofar as the labor contract is ‘free’, what the worker receives
is determined, not by the real value of the goods he produces,
but by his minimum needs and by the capitalists’ requirements for labor power
in relation to the number of workers competing for jobs.
It is important to understand that even in theory the payment
of the worker is not determined by the value of his product.

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of
competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development
and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of
larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones.
The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private
capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively
checked even by a democratically organized political society.
This is true since the members of legislative bodies are
selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise
influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes,
separate the electorate from the legislature.
The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not sufficiently
protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population.
Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control,
directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education).
It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite
impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective
conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

The situation prevailing in an economy based on the private
ownership of capital is thus characterized by two main principles:
first, means of production (capital) are privately owned and the
owners dispose of them as they see fit;
second, the labor contract is free.
Of course, there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society in this sense.
In particular, it should be noted that the workers, through long & bitter
political struggles, have succeeded in securing a somewhat improved form of
the ‘free labor contract’ for certain categories of workers.
But taken as a whole, todays economy does not differ much from ‘pure’ capitalism.
Production is carried on for profit, not for use.

There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will
always be in a position to find employment;
an “army of unemployed” almost always exists.
The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job.
Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market,
the production of consumers’ goods is restricted,
and great hardship is the consequence.
Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment
rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all.
The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists,
is responsible for an instability in the accumulation & utilization
of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions.
Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that
crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.
This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism.
Our whole educational system suffers from this evil.

An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is
trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils,
namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an
educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.
In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society
itself and are utilized in a planned fashion.
A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community,
would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would
guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child.
The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own
innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of
responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of
power and success in our present society.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy
is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be
accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual.
The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely
difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the
far-reaching centralization of political and economic power,
to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening?
How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith
a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured ?

Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest
significance in our age of transition.

Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion
of these problems has come under a powerful taboo, I consider the
foundation of this magazine to be an important public service.