Theo Rothstein June 1900
Source: Social Democrat,Vol. IV, No. 6, June, 1900, pp.167-174;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
There is a pretty and rather worn-out story by Moebius of a pike which he kept in his aquarium for purposes of observation and experiment. Seeing that it mercilessly devoured every new fish that came "under the sphere of its influence," he placed in the aquarium a glass-plate, thus isolating it from the rest of its kin. The pike did not at first understand the new arrangement and continued to rush at every fresh arrival. But as each time it bumped its head against the plate and dropped to the bottom nearly senseless, it soon grasped the situation and kept its peace. It swam about in its restricted compartment, never touching the glass with either head or tail, and the sight of the newcomers left it almost undisturbed. A few weeks passed, and the partition was removed. But the pike did not resume its aggressiveness and kept on moving about within the imaginary limits.
The comrades who have ungrudgingly given up the best years of their lives for the cause and have borne the brunt of the unpopular battle in a spirit of matchless self-sacrifice will not take offence when I say that the fortunes of the movement which they have created and is so dear to them forcibly remind one of the above story. It can hardly be a humiliation to confess that Socialism in England has been in the past the pike in Moebius's aquarium. Born at a time when bourgeois ideals in economics and politics were still, though intrinsically well-nigh worthless, quoted above par, it made several attempts to reach the great mass of the people, but bumped each time its head against the glass partition of Liberalism and was, at last, compelled to lie low on the bottom. It did not die, of course. It continued to move about, casting glances at the fish beyond the magic plate; but it restricted its movements within a limited compass and but feebly hoped to ever be able to extend them to a wider sphere. In this it cardinally differed from its sister-movements abroad. There, and especially in Germany, the glass-plate of Liberalism has been thin enough to allow of its being broken through, and Socialism has, almost from its start, acquired a wide field of action, and so was able to get at its prey.
But now the partition of English Liberalism is gone, too. The South African war has forcibly removed it ere it had time to succumb to the fulness of its age, and to the wear and tear caused by the elements. Are we, Socialists, going to act as if nothing has happened, and so to complete the analogy with Moebius's pike? That would, indeed, be very natural, During the long existence of the glass plate we have got used to certain kinds of movements which became fixed, and now we want time to unloosen them. It is a case of social adaptation to the milieu leading to a sort of paralysis, with which we are familiar in the biological world. But, whilst it is so, it would at the same time betray a lamentable lack of that higher sort of intelligence which, both in the individual and in society, serves as a mark of a loftier position on the scale of existence. It is an intelligence which knows how to accelerate the natural course of the evolution of things, and by this means lifts itself out of slavery to the blind forces playing around it into the region of freedom. It is pre-eminently one of great perspicacity - of deep and precise insight into the correlation of things and psychology of men - coupled with a will and readiness to act as soon as the moment for it arrives. Its absence does not necessarily imply stupidity, but its presence saves it from waste of time and energy, and allows of an active participation in the course of events. It seizes upon the processes of readjustment of the social forces at their very inception, and even at their eve, and, by throwing itself into their midst, helps, like a wedge, to burst the old and to bring out the new. Thus it is essentially an anticipative faculty. It does not wait for the development of exterior circumstances to call out new corresponding movements on its part; it evolves the latter itself, and so anticipates the former.
The pike in Moebius's aquarium was evidently bereft of that faculty. Are we bereft of it too? I cannot, I do not believe it. We must, we can extricate ourselves from the spell of the magic circle which Liberalism has drawn around us, and we must assume at once a new policy corresponding to the new vistas opened before us.
What are its essentials, then? What are the principles on which it ought to be based? They must be the very reverse of those which govern the action of a sect or of a school of thought. Every organisation which has some ideals to translate into life, but is deprived of the possibility for action, is apt to degenerate sooner or later into a mere sect. It becomes aware of its practical helplessness and ends by withdrawing from the world which it despairs of influencing and reforming. It grows more and more academical. The doctrines which it professes assume in its eyes an enhanced value and their original purity is jealously guarded against the mire of the rough and turbulent actuality like the snow-white skirts which the gentle lady carefully gathers up when crossing the muddy street. Gradually they lose contact with life altogether. They are casketed away from the profane eye, and the sect sits on the top of them critically watching the passing show of events. Criticism, in fact, becomes its very life - not, however, that criticism which destroys in order to build (the sect is powerless and has no aptitude for that), but criticism which exercises its spleen merely because the thing does not correspond with the doctrine. Naturally, that criticism is barren; naturally, it lets slip many objects worthy of its attention simply because they find no room in the space covered by the literally-interpreted doctrine. And so the sect passes its time in quibbling and hair-splitting. It feels itself a stranger to life, and life, in its turn, becomes a stranger to it.
It would be sheer calumny to say that the above description exactly fits in with our policy during the past period of our existence. Neither did we feel entirely helpless, nor did we sit complacently on the pinnacle of our doctrines, merely amusing ourselves with passing criticisms. Still we have been more of a sect than of a party. We regarded the world with an eye, not so much of active participators, as of "intelligent onlookers," and far from thinking to impress upon it our distinct personality, we contented ourselves with examining it from our particular standpoint. And that standpoint was especially adapted to estrange us from life. For standing as we did on the principle of class struggle, we necessarily, on account of our practical impotence which prevented us from vivifying it by contact with reality - we necessarily, I say, turned our position into one outside the moving world, thus making of it a mere vantage-ground for observation, not a lever wherewith to work. And the result naturally was, that we regarded many important social facts and developments as no concern of ours, and those which, we thought, did concern us assumed but a conventional value of illustrations to our principles.
All this was perfectly natural. We could not help it and we are not to be blamed for it. We were born before our time and we paid the full penalty for it. Shame to him who would sneer at our adverse fortunes We are ordinary mortals, and the more honour to us for having kept our fire aglow all through the damping influences of the time.
But now we must enter the wide arena of life. The spell is broken and we may at once start on our march towards the conquest of the great mass of the people. How is this to be achieved? In other words, how are we to change into a party?
The first and most obvious condition is to place ourselves in the midst of society and to regard ourselves as a living part of it. Nothing that passes around us is alien to us. Nay, more. Since Liberalism has become a thing of the past and the bourgeoisie has ignominiously abandoned the fight for civil freedom and personal rights in which it formerly took pride, we have become the sole keepers of democratic progress and must not shirk that vast responsibility. This means that we have to take an active interest in every little turn and twist of the country's destinies, and nothing must happen without our positive contribution to its ultimate shape and fate. The very principle of class war which formerly served as a cloud that hid our august personality from the eyes of the world and kept us high above it, ought to become the unbreakable chain that keeps us in constant touch with all points of society. Only it must be understood as applicable to all social phenomena, to every movement, however inaccessible to a strictly economic interpretation. Our class-consciousness would then become a guide in our dealings, not a means for self-entrenchment, and our proletarian interests would coincide with those of society as a whole. For the truth must never be lost sight of, that distinct as we are, as a class, from the rest of society, we are not inimical to it, and everything that furthers its material and moral welfare is at the same time to our special. advantage. Political and civil freedom, cheap justice, wide and sound education, aesthetic culture, and innumerable minor things which, in spite of our professed programmes, very frequently leave us indifferent, are of the utmost importance to the proletarian class, and should concern us as much as its material well-being. In fact, they are all inseparable from each other and mutually interdependent for support and permanency. It is only a sect that divides them, and it is a party which grasps them as an organic whole.
I cannot better illustrate this thorny point than by reminding the reader of the Dreyfus case and of the attitude towards it of French and other Socialists. How many there were amongst the latter who regarded the case as a family quarrel between the different sections of the governing classes, and, consequently, as no concern of the proletariat! Happily, there was one amongst our comrades in France - a leader with real statesmanship - who understood that justice and political liberty are of the greatest importance to the working classes, and drove them, almost against their wish, into the battle. It is quite true that whether Monarchy or Republic, whether the rule of the aristocracy or that of the bourgeoisie, the worker is exploited and enslaved all the same; but to confine his interests within narrow economic bounds means isolating him from the rest of the community which lives a full life - economic, political, scientific, artistic, &c. Jaurès understood this, and by his bold action he at once placed the proletariat in the midst of society, turning, thereby, Socialism from a sect into a party.
The same has happened quite recently in Germany. A Bill has been introduced into the Reichstag making punishable every work of art which offends the feeling of "public decency." As the penal code contains ample provision for cases of real pornography, and the term "public decency" is too vague to allow of any exact interpretation save by the omniscient police, the Bill in reality aimed at suppressing every freedom in creative art, and at making it to conform to the prudish and hypocritical morality of the governing classes. What vital interest in art, it may be asked, has the proletarian, immersed as he is day and night in toil and cares? Yet the Socialists have energetically undertaken its defence, rightly thinking that whatever is good for society at large is good for the proletarian in particular.
And thus we act in every country. It is only, here, in England, where we have been a sect, that we disdained those little "ideologies" as so many "fads," important, perhaps, for this or that section of the bourgeoisie, but perfectly valueless for the working classes. The latter live only by bread, and it is only those questions which directly concern bread that are of any interest to us. And so we scarcely lift a finger in such questions of high importance as that of secularisation of Sunday, of making justice accessible to all, and so on, and content ourselves with a paragraph or two in our paper, when for instance, national money is squandered upon landlords, shareholders in the Niger Company, and others.
No, no. If liberty, democracy, intellectual and other culture - in short, all that makes life worth living - has any value at all, it has it for the proletariat. The working classes are the only class which is directly and more permanently than any other interested in progress all round, and it is our bounden duty to stand and agitate font at all times, at all places.
Naturally, that stand and agitation ought, to be real and active, not for mere conscience sake. We have been too apt in the past to content ourselves with words and deeds just sufficient to let the world know what we think and feel. This is lamentably insufficient. Nothing is so little calculated to help the cause as the attitude of self-sufficient righteousness which contemplates the mistakes and sins of mankind, and does nothing but judge them. We must try and remedy them, and that not by merely pointing them out, but by throwing our entire weight on the scale of right, and by contributing our positive share to the drawing of the balance in the right direction. Suppose we have again before us the question of old age pensions in the forms in which it has been presented to us in the past. The very fact that the initiative in working out a tolerably practical scheme, and in bringing it sufficiently near to the minds of the public, has issued from other quarters than our own, is in itself discreditable enough to our party. It shows a certain lack of appreciation on our part of what we owe to the class we represent and to ourselves. But our policy during the time that the question was under discussion, was still worse. We seemed to shrug our shoulders on the different projects then afloat, and, having riddled them with criticisms, declared in so many words that nothing short of an entire reconstruction of the Poor Law will meet the crying need. Granted, we were right. Granted, the schemes then brought before us were either savouring of humbug or insufficient. Was a mere negative attitude towards them the right way of solving the problem at issue? It did, perhaps, serve the purpose of "registering our protest," and so easing our feelings; but it did not help the cause one inch further. We ought to have left our wounded feelings entirely on one side, as a matter of purely private concern, and gone for a healthy criticism, having in view, as its sole object, the development of a positive programme both practicable under the existing conditions and sufficient to meet the most urgent cases. It was no good to speak of the necessity of reconstructing society in order to reach at a complete solution of the problem. We do not speak of that when dealing with the question, say, of the unemployed, which admits as little or as much palliation as the former. We ought to have taken as our basis the scheme of Mr. Booth and, having pointed out its insufficiency; enlarged its scope of application and the extent of the relief offered. By doing so, we would have still left many important flaws unremedied which are absolutely inevitable under the present order of society; but, far from deterring us from the work undertaken, those flaws might have served just the purpose of introducing into the agitation our fundamental Socialist principles. And so, by working out a detailed and practicable scheme and by energetically defending it by all available means of print and word of mouth, we would have done what every party conscious of its duties and responsibilities ought to do, and helped to further the cause of the proletariat to an appreciable degree.
But if a mere negative and, consequently, academical attitude on such questions as that of old age pensions can do absolutely no good, in the sense of bringing them to a workable solution, such an attitude in cases where blood and life are literally at stake, is still worse. Yet, observe how, for instance, we act during a strike. We approach the men with assurances of our goodwill, but, instead of helping them by all means at our disposal, we declare the struggle to be practically futile. We regard it primarily as a text to preach Socialism from, not as an incident in the great class war which claims all our sympathy and support. Of course, such an attitude is false. Whenever a strike breaks out, it is our bounden duty to lay aside every theoretical consideration - the thing speaks clear enough for itself - and to throw ourselves heart and soul into the matter just as the Daily Chronicle used to do in the past, or the Vorwaerts does at the moment of writing with regard to the Berlin tramway men's struggle. Is it too much to ask of a Socialist Party to view a strike from a revolutionary standpoint, and to make it an affair of their own? If it is not, than let us once for all leave off the doctrinarian habit of "manifestoeing" in cases where it breaks out and simply do the work which ought to be done.
I am afraid that the space at my disposal will not permit my going into further details with regard to the necessary changes in our policy. I believe that the two points indicated - the need of a party policy as distinguished from a sectarian one, and the need of a positive agitation for the cause's sake as distinguished from a mere negative one for our conscience sake - will for the present suffice. I cannot, however, forbear pointing out that these very points, so absolutely vital to our moral existence, are at the same time vital to our material existence; that is, I mean to say, a policy conducted on these lines is not only what we owe to the class we represent and to the principles we profess, but also what we owe to ourselves as an organisation. For, taking the first point, how can we doubt that it is only by identifying ourselves completely with society and its material and moral interests that we can win the mass of the people over to our side and become their acknowledged leaders in the march towards democracy and freedom? It is a mistake to suppose that the enunciation and defence of economic truths only are the best means of bringing the flock of the unregenerated to our fold. On one hand, the "belly" is proverbially deaf and short memoried and on the other, however basical those truths are in the life of , men, they belong to a domain which is held by the mass of the people to be unchangeable and out of the reach of human power. Any stand made on them is consequently bound to meet in the majority of cases with either indifference and scepticism or animosity, and so it comes to pass that people listen most eagerly to those appeals which are made from the lower and derivative platform of political and social reform which history has made so familiar to them. This is certainly strange, but it is, nevertheless, true, as proved by our everyday experience. We may, therefore, safely assume that were we to change and to enlarge our policy in the direction indicated above, the people would naturally turn to us in great numbers, and out of a small sect we would grow into a great party strong both in point of numbers, and in influence. Naturally, that would solve one of those subordinate, though still important problems the grappling with which has cost us in the past, many a strenuous and wasted effort. I mean the problem of parliamentary representation. We have long been devising some ways and means of sending our representatives to the House of. Commons, and many have been the projects mooted with a view of attaining that end. I cannot agree with any of them. I cannot agree even with that which evidently finds most favour with everybody, viz., that of bargaining with the Liberals under the threat of transferring our votes to the Tories. I object to it not because of any scruples or doubt as to its efficacy. I object to it simply because it is wholly insufficient to meet the case. To my mind, it formulates what is at best but a clever piece of tactics which can gain this or that incidental electoral battle; but the great problem of how to form a party in Parliament cannot be solved by it, since it depends for its successful issue on a much larger thing, namely, on strategy, on policy. In other words, the way to Parliament lies only through the hearts of the electorate, and no amount of successful tactics can take the place of a policy as described above.
As regards the other point, i.e., the need of changing the character of our action, it also will, if realised, impart material and moral strength to our organisation. It is generally assumed that the educational work which is so absolutely necessary to do in order that we may grow, can be carried on mainly, if not solely, by propaganda, that is, by bringing our principles before the public, and by making the latter understand and digest them. Nothing is further from the truth. Not only is not propaganda the only or the chief means at our disposal to educate the public in our principles, but it is actually the least important of the two, the other being practical work and action. Propaganda, i.e., theoretical elucidation of principles, can gain but solitary proselytes in the persons of those who live largely by ideas and ideals; the great mass of the people cannot be reached by it. They are susceptible only to the influence of practice, enthusiastic work, martyrdom, &c. Action is, in fact, the greatest educator on the face of the earth. Like swift and powerful motion it develops a force of attraction of its own, and drags into its orbit, frequently much against their will, all the near standing bodies. For theoretical dissensions, dissensions on matters of principle and conviction, play a far less important part in life than is generally imagined. They exist and assume unnatural proportions and act at mutually repellant forces only in the absence of an appropriate ground for action; that is why sects always quarrel; but such a ground being given, all the dissensions sink in the common work, and become nothing but so many private opinions or even idiosyncrasies which seldom, if ever, emerge to the surface, of practical life. Action, like fire in the forge, purifies the opinions of those who enter into it, and welds them together into one common faith and one common enthusiasm. It holds together a powerful organisation of men of widely differing temperaments, views and conditions of life, such as the German Socialist Party is; it bands into one common union innumerable sects which never could agree on the most fundamental principles of policy and tactics, such as our French comrades were before the Dreyfus affair; and it will certainly bring about the long-desired fusion of the two rival Socialist organisations of Great Britain which are now at loggerheads over the most trivial matters. Yes. The latter event cannot be brought about either by persuasion or by order. It will come off in the most natural way when one of the organisations will have learnt how to act as befits a party, and thus become the nucleus round which all the congenial elements from the surrounding milieu will gradually crystallise. Then the other organisation, as well as all honest men from the Radicals, will naturally join it, and, acting first as allies and then as co-religionists, will form one and the same party of British Social-Democracy.
I have finished. I know how sketchy the article is and how liable it is to misunderstandings and objections. I hope, however, to have set the ball rolling, and now others are welcome to enlarge and to improve it.