William Morris and E. Belfort Bax

Socialism From The Root Up - Chapter 23 - Socialism Triumphant [Part 2]

It remains to say something on the religious and ethical basis of which the life of Communal Society may be called an expression, although from another aspect the religion may be said to be an expression of that life; the two together forming an harmonious whole.

The word religion has been, and is still in most minds, connected with supernatural beliefs, and consequently the use of the word has been attacked as unjustifiable where this element is absent. But, as we shall proceed to show in a few words, this is rather accessory to it than essential.

In the first instance religion had for its object the continuance and glory of the kinship -- Society; whether as clan, tribe, or people, ancestor worship forming the leading feature in its early phases. That in such an epoch religion should have been connected with what we now call superstition was inevitable, since at that time no distinction was drawn between the human and any other form of existence, whether in animal life or in inanimate matters, all being alike considered conscious and intelligent.

Consequently, with the development of material civilization from the domination of things by persons to that of persons by things, and the consequent falling asunder of Society into two classes, a possessing and dominating class, and a non-possessing and dominated one, arose a condition of Society which gave leisure to the possessing or slave-holding class, the result of which was a possibility of observation and reflection amongst the upper class. As a consequence of this a process of reflection arose among this class which distinguished man as a conscious being from the rest of nature. From this again arose a dual conception of things: on the one hand was man, which was familiar and known, on the other nature, which was mysterious and relatively unknown. In nature itself grew a further distinction between its visible objects now regarded as unconscious things, and a supposed motive power which acted on them from behind, which was conceived of as manlike in character, but above mankind in knowledge and power, and no longer a part of the things themselves, but without them, and moving and controlling them.

Another set of dual conceptions arose along with this, firstly the distinction between the individual and Society, and secondly within the individual the distinction between the soul and the body. Religion now became definitely supernatural, and at last superstitious, as far as the cultured class was concerned, since they had gradually lost their old habit of belief in it.

At this stage there arose a conflict not only of belief but also of ethical conceptions; the ceremonies and customs based on the earlier ideas, on a nature composed of beings who were all conscious, became meaningless and in many cases repulsive to the advanced minds of the epoch; hence arose a system of esoteric explanation and the Mysteries(1). An importance began to be attached to the idea of a future life for the individual soul, which had nothing in common with the old idea of a scarcely broken existence, founded not on any positive doctrine, but on the impossibility of an existing being conceiving of its non-existence; an idea naively expressed, for instance, in the burial ceremonies of all early races, in which food, horses, arms, etc., are buried with the dead man as a provision for his journey to the unknown country. These ideas, and the doctrines and ceremonies embodying them, grow in number and body as the stream of history broadens down, till they finally issue in the universal or ethical religions (as opposed to the tribal or nature-religions) of which Buddhism and Christianity are the great historical examples, and in which the original ceremonies and their meaning have become fused with each other, and with the new ethics of these religions, and are supposed to express these ethics more or less symbolically. An illustration of what has here been said may be found in the fusion of the ancient notions of sacrifices in the doctrine of the Atonement(2).

We have said that with the rise of civilization tribal society became divided into classes, owing to the growth of the individual ownership of property as opposed to its corporate ownership. The old relations of persons to society were thus destroyed, and with them much of the meaning of the old ethical ideas. In the tribal society, the responsibility of the individual to the limited society of which he formed a part was strongly felt, while he recognized no duty outside his tribe. In the new conception of morality which now arose he had, it is true, duties to all men as a man, irrespective of the community to which he belonged, but they were vague and could be evaded or explained away with little disturbance of the conscience; because the central point round which morality revolved was a spiritual deity who was the source of morality and directly revealed himself to the individual conscience. These two, the tribal ethics, the responsibility to a community however limited, and the universal or introspective ethics, or responsibility to a divinity to whom humanity was but a means of realizing himself, and to whom therefore the duties of man to man were of secondary importance(3) -- are the two ethical poles. But though the tendency was in this direction from the beginnings of civilization, it took historically many centuries to realize itself, and only reached its final development in Christianity; and has now under the influence of competitive economics taken the final form of the devil-take-the-hindmost doctrine and practice of modern society.

As regards the future form of the moral consciousness, we may safely predict that it will be in a sense a return on a higher level to the ethics of the older society, with the difference that the limitation of scope to the kinship society in its narrower sense, which was one of the elements of the dissolution of ancient society, will disappear, and the identification of individual with social interests will be so complete that any divorce between the two will be inconceivable to the average man.

We may say in conclusion that this new ethic is no longer a mere theoretical speculation, but that many thousands of lives are already under its inspiration. Its first great popular manifestation was given in the heroic devotion of the working-classes of Paris in the Commune of 1871 to the idea of true and universal freedom, which was carried on by the no less complete devotion of the little band of Russian revolutionists who made so little account of their individual lives in their engrossing passion for the general life of humanity.

Everywhere the same feeling is spreading, and even in England, the chosen home of bourgeois bureaucracy, which, with the instinctive cunning of a business country, gives every opportunity to well-to-do persons for forgetting the general welfare in that of the individual, it is getting more irrepressible every day. The wave of ethical feeling is no doubt the result of the development of the class struggle now rapidly approaching to the crisis which will abolish all classes: in fact, the mere hope, ever growing nearer to realisation, of an economical change which will make life easy and refined for all, is what has made this ethical idea possible, as the habits which the new economical system will engender will make any other form of ethics inconceivable: since once for all change in the economical system of society must always be accompanied by fresh ethical ideas.

We may be asked, since we have been putting forward the doctrine of evolution throughout these chapters, what Socialism in its turn will evolve. We can only answer that Socialism denies the finality of human progress, and that any system of which we can now conceive of as Socialism must necessarily give way to a new development of society. But that development is necessarily hidden from us by the unfinished struggle in which we live, in which for us the supreme goal is the Socialism we have been putting forward. Nor do we repine at this limitation of our insight; that goal is sublime and beautiful enough which promises to us the elevation of the whole of the people to a level of intelligent happiness and pleasurable energy, which at present is reached, if at all, only by a chosen few at the expense of the misery and degradation of the greater part of mankind; and even by those few, is held on such a precarious tenure that it is to them little better than a pleasant dream disturbed by fantastic fears which have their birth from the terribly real sufferings of the ordinary life of the masses on whom they live.

1. The mysteries were nothing but a practice of the ancient rude ceremonies now treated as revelations to certain privileged persons of this hidden meaning which could not be understood by the vulgar: that is, people began to assume that the ancient rude and sometimes coarse ceremonies (belief in which directly as explanations of natural events now appeared to them incredible) wrapped up mystical meanings in an allegorical manner; eg., a simple sun-myth would be turned into an allegory of the soul and the divinity, -- their relative dealings with a present and future life back.

2. See article 'Sacrifice' in the 'Encyclopxdia Britannica' (9th Edition), by Professor Robertson Smith back.

3. 'Morality, thou dreadful bane, What tens of thousands thou hast slain!' back (Protestant hymn.)

Commonweal, Volume 4, Number 123, 19 May 1888, PP. 154-155