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The New International, December 1946


Richard Stoker

Our Threatened Values


From New International, Vol.12 No.10, December 1946, p.319.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Our Threatened Values, by Victor Gollancz
Published by Gollancz, 1946.

Mr. Gollancz’s book, which has received a wide sale in England, is a welcome and eloquent tribute to the value of personality and a warm-hearted appeal for its preservation. But while the book is strong on moral purpose, it is weak in analysis.

Western culture, he asserts, is distinguished by its respect for personality, which contains all the other primary values. It emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual and his right to live, develop and create. Personality is a wider concept than nation, race, color, class or religion. It asserts that men are to be treated as men, in terms of their common humanity, and not in terms of such accidental and divisive circumstances as birth, status, color or fortune. The country or the class or the religion or the color into which men are born should be irrelevant to their treatment. The treatment the Germans accorded the Jews and the treatment we are according the Germans is painful evidence of the disintegration of Western values. Men should not be treated as Germans or as Jews but simply as men.

What technique does Gollancz offer to implement Western values? Merely the consciousness of our failings and the injunction to correct them. And that consciousness can be applied only by example. Russia offers the most serious threat to Western values – well, let us answer the Russians by showing them how much we value personality!

Gollancz does not consider how Western values arose and why they are now disintegrating. Certainly the few men of good will share his affirmations, but that is not enough. People will not reduce their rations to help others, business men will not sacrifice profits and politicians will not refuse power.

These Western values were always imperfectly realized and in far happier times received no more than peripheral emphasis. But how did these values, tentative and half-tried though they always were, arise? They arose in specific historical circumstances, in an age of burgeoning capitalism and the growth of diverse religious beliefs. Are contemporary conditions approximate or analogous to the historical circumstances that were congenial to these values? Is the growth of population and cities, the development of the factory system and the machine process and the rise of the labor movement compatible with these values? What is the relevance and applicability of these values in different historical circumstances? Gollancz makes no attempt to answer these questions.

Gollancz is a socialist and subscribes to the socialist ethic, but he is not a Marxist. The real case for socialism, he states, is moral, and respect for personality demands the supersession of capitalism. If capitalism and the value of personality are incompatible, how can Gollancz account for the rise of the value of personality under capitalism? Such a contradiction cannot be explained by Gollancz’s abstract and unhistorical approach. Indeed, it is the unhistorical character of his thought that creates such contradictions.

Gollancz is the latest in a long line of non-Marxist socialist moralists. The criticism voiced by Sidney Hook some years ago is still valid despite the authors subsequent break with a Marxist point of view.

“Marxists have criticized non-Marxist socialism not because of its interest in ideals but because of the abstract character of its morality. The history of non-Marxist socialism reveals a succession of unhistorical moral ideals – Kantian categorical imperatives, extensions of the social principles of Christianity, or apotheosis of the good, true and beautiful überhaupt.”

Actually, capitalism can make a respectable moral case for itself. The theory of capitalism asserts that by obeying certain laws of the market, society can rise to higher economic levels and engage in ever-widening distribution of its commodities. Economic inequality is one of the levers through which these aims can be realized. There is nothing morally revolting in an economic inequality which can give Mr. Morgan a yacht and an extra car in his country home, provided that all men are guaranteed rising living standards of decency and comfort. But the criticism of capitalism is an economic criticism.

Marxists assert that socialism can work, not because it is a superior moral system, but because it is a rational, consistent system capable of guaranteeing the maintenance of production and the distribution of goods.

Gollancz states that he is sensitive to the means-ends fallacy, but nevertheless falls victim to it I agree, he says to the Russians, with your end (socialism), but I disagree with your means (contempt of personality). The indissoluble character of the means-ends relationship should make him question whether, contemptuous as they are of personality, the Russians are interested in realizing socialism.

And yet, this is a significant book because it calls our attention to the easily forgotten fact that we are moral beings with moral purposes. In the routine of class struggle, thinking as one does in terms of organization, strategy, tactics, party, program and propaganda, one may forget the value of personality.

Nevertheless, considering its aim, this is an ineffectual book, the English counterpart of many of the contributions that appear in Politics. Our desires, ideals and values must, if they are to be effective, bear an intimate relationship to possibility. It is well enough to voice an aspiration, remote from reality, provided of course that we recognize it is dream or fiction. But to voice an unattainable aspiration is to incur the danger of creating an illusion more harmful than a mirage to a thirsty traveler. Not only does such an illusion enlist energies into sterile channels, not only is its fruit ultimate frustration, but it diverts attention from what may be achieved and hastens the triumph of the evils it is designed to avoid. It is .not enough to say we want freedom or that we want a socialism in which the unfettered personality can function. We must first determine what can be achieved, and then we must decide, within the framework of the possible, within the structure of alternatives, what we ought to achieve. Our first task, involving as it does a statement of what the contemporary world is, would be historical and descriptive: to determine the alternatives discarded, adopted and exhausted in achieving our culture, and to state what the structure of our culture is. Will that structure survive, and if it will not, what can replace it? If more than one structure can replace it, which one should we struggle for?

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