Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
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Man and Society

The human being and the group. The problem of man cannot be solved scientifically without a clear statement of the relationship between man and society, as seen in the primary collectivity—the family, the play or instruction group, the production team and other types of formal or informal collectivity. In the family the individual abandons some of his specific features to become a member of the whole. The life of the family is related to the division of labour according to sex and age, the carrying on of husbandry, mutual assistance in everyday life, the intimate life of man and wife, the perpetuation of the race, the upbringing of the children and also various moral, legal and psychological relationships. The family is a crucial instrument for the development of personality. It is here that the child first becomes involved in social life, absorbs its values and standards of behaviour, its ways of thought, language and certain value orientations. It is this primary group that bears the major responsibility to society. Its first duty is to the social group, to society and humanity. Through the group the child, as he grows older, enters society. Hence the decisive role of the group. The influence of one person on another is as a rule extremely limited; the collectivity as a whole is the main educational force. Here the psychological factors are very important. It is essential that a person should feel himself part of a group at his own wish, and that the group should voluntarily accept him, take in his personality.

Everybody performs certain functions in a group. Take, for example, the production team. Here people are joined together by other interests as well as those of production; they exchange certain political, moral, aesthetic, scientific and other values. A group generates public opinion, it sharpens and polishes the mind and shapes the character and will. Through the group a person rises to the level of a personality, a conscious subject of historical creativity. The group is the first shaper of the personality, and the group itself is shaped by society.

The unity of man and society. A person's whole intellectual make-up bears the clear imprint of the life of society as a whole. All his practical activities are individual expressions of the historically formed social practice of humanity. The implements that he uses have in their form a function evolved by a society which predetermines the ways of using them. When tackling any job, we all have to take into account what has already been achieved before us.

The wealth and complexity of the individual's social content are conditioned by the diversity of his links with the social whole, the degree to which the various spheres of the life of society have been assimilated and refracted in his consciousness and activity. This is why the level of individual development is an indicator of the level of development of society, and vice versa. But the individual does not dissolve into society. He retains his unique and independent individuality and makes his contribution to the social whole: just as society itself shapes human beings, so human beings shape society.

The individual is a link in the chain of the generations. His affairs are regulated not only by himself, but also by the social standards, by the collective reason or mind. The true token of individuality is the degree to which a certain individual in certain specific historical conditions has absorbed the essence of the society in which he lives.

Consider, for instance, the following historical fact. Who or what would Napoleon Bonaparte have been if there had been no French Revolution? It is difficult or perhaps even impossible to reply to this question. But one thing is quite clear—he would never have become a great general and certainly not an emperor. He himself was well aware of his debt and in his declining years said, "My son cannot replace me. I could not replace myself. I am the creature of circumstances."[1] It has long been acknowledged that great epochs give birth to great men. What tribunes of the people were lifted by the tide of events of the French Revolution— Mirabeau, Marat, Robespierre, Danton. What young, some times even youthful talents that had remained dormant among the people were raised to the heights of revolutionary, military, and organisational activity by the Great October Socialist Revolution.

It is sometimes said that society carries the individual as a river carries a boat. This is a pleasant simile, but not exact. An individual does not float with the river; he is the turbulently flowing river itself. The events of social life do not come about by themselves; they are made. The great and small paths of the laws of history are blazed by human effort and often at the expense of human blood. The laws of history are not charted in advance by superhuman forces; they are made by people, who then submit to their authority as something that is above the individual.

The key to the mysteries of human nature is to be found in society. Society is the human being in his social relations, and every human being is an individual embodiment of social relations, a product not only of the existing social system but of all world history. He absorbs what has been accumulated by the centuries and passed on through traditions. Modern man carries within himself all the ages of history and all his own individual ages as well. His personality is a concentration of various strata of culture. He is influenced not only by modern mass media, but also by the writings of all times and every nation. He is the living memory of history, the focus of all the wealth of knowledge, abilities, skills, and wisdom that have been amassed through the ages.

Man is a kind of super-dense living atom in the system of social reality. He is a concentration of the actively creative principle in this system. Through myriads of visible and invisible impulses the fruit of people's creative thought in the past continues to nourish him and, through him, contemporary culture.

Sometimes the relation between man and society is interpreted in such a way that the latter seems to be something that goes on around a person, something in which he is immersed. But this is a fundamentally wrong approach. Society does, of course, exist outside the individual as a kind of social environment in the form of a historically shaped system of relations with rich material and spiritual culture that is independent of his will and consciousness. The individual floats in this environment all his life. But society also exists in the individual himself and could not exist at all, apart from the real activity of its members. History in itself does nothing. Society possesses no wealth whatever. It fights no battles. It grows no grain. It produces no tools for making things or weapons for destroying them. It is not society as such but man who does all this, who possesses it, who creates everything and fights for everything. Society is not some impersonal being that uses the individual as a means of achieving its aims. All world history is nothing but the daily activity of individuals pursuing their aims. Here we are talking not about the actions of individuals who are isolated and concerned only with themselves, but about the actions of the masses, the deeds of historical personalities and peoples. An individual developing within the framework of a social system has both a certain dependence on the whole system of social standards and an autonomy that is an absolutely necessary precondition for the life and development of the system. The measure of this personal autonomy is historically conditioned and depends on the character of the social system itself. Exceptional rigidity in a social system (fascism, for example) makes it impossible or extremely difficult for individual innovations in the form of creative activity in various spheres of life to take place, and this inevitably leads to stagnation.

The relationships between the individual and society in history. To return once again to the simile of the river. The history of humankind is like a great river bearing its waters into the ocean of the past. What is past in life does not become something that has never been. No matter how far we go from the past, it still lives to some extent in us and with us. From the very beginning, the character of the man-society relationship changed substantially in accordance with the flow of historical time. The relationship between the individual and a primitive horde was one thing. Brute force was supreme and instincts were only slightly controlled, although even then there were glimpses of moral standards of cooperation without which any survival, let alone development, would have been impossible. In tribal conditions people were closely bound by ties of blood. At that time there were no state or legal relationships. Not the individual but the tribe, the genus, was the law-giver. The interests of the individual were syncretised with those of the commune. In the horde and in tribal society there were leaders who had come to the fore by their resourcefulness, brains, agility, strength of will, and so on. Labour functions were divided on the basis of age and sex, as were the forms of social and other activity. With the development of the socium an ever increasing differentiation of social functions takes place. People acquire private personal rights and duties, personal names, and a constantly growing measure of personal responsibility. The individual gradually becomes a personality, and his relations with society acquire an increasingly complex character. When the society based on law and the state first arose, people were sharply divided between masters and slaves, rulers and ruled. Slave society with its private property set people against one another. Some individuals began to oppress and exploit others.

Feudal society saw the emergence of the hierarchy of castes, making some people totally dependent on others. On the shoulders of the common toiler there grew up an enormous parasitic tree with kings or tsars at its summit. This pyramid of social existence determined the rights and duties of its citizens, and the rights were nearly all at the top of the social scale. This was a society of genuflection, where not only the toilers but also the rulers bowed the knee to the dogma of Holy Scripture and the image of the Almighty.

The age of the Renaissance was a hymn to the free individual and to the ideal of the strong fully developed human being blazing trails of discovery into foreign lands, broadening the horizons of science, and creating masterpieces of art and technical perfection. History became the scene of activity for the enterprising and determined individual. Not for him the impediments of the feudal social pyramid, where the idle wasted their lives and money, enjoying every privilege, and the toilers were kept in a state of subjugation and oppression. At first came the struggle for freedom of thought, of creativity. This grew into the demand for civil and political freedom, freedom of private initiative and social activity in general.

As a result of the bourgeois revolutions that followed, the owners of capital acquired every privilege, and also political power. The noble demand that had been inscribed on the banners of the bourgeois revolutions—liberty, equality and fraternity—turned out to mean an abundance of privileges for some and oppression for others. Individualism blossomed forth, an individualism in which everybody considered himself the hub of the universe and his own existence and prosperity more important than anyone else's. People set themselves up in opposition to other people and to society as a whole. Such mutual alienation is a disease that corrupts the social whole. The life of another person, even one's nearest, becomes no more than a temporary show, a passing cloud. The growing bureaucracy, utilitarianism and technologism in culture considerably narrow the opportunities for human individuality to express and develop itself. The individual becomes an insignificant cog in the gigantic machine controlled by capital. Alienation makes itself felt with particular force.

What is alienation? It is the conversion of the results of physical and intellectual activity into forces that get out of human control and, having gained the whip hand, strike back at their own creators, the people. It is a kind of jinn that people summon to their aid and then find themselves unable to cope with. Thus, the state which arose in slave society, became a force that oppressed the mass of the people, an apparatus of coercion by one class over another. The science that people venerate, that brings social progress and is in itself the expression of this progress, becomes in its material embodiment a lethal force that threatens all mankind. How much has man created that exerts a terrible pressure on his health, his mind and his willpower! These supra-personal forces, which are the product of people's joint social activity and oppress them, are the phenomenon known as alienation.

The thinkers of the past, who were truly dedicated to the idea of benefiting the working folk, pointed out the dangers of a system governed by the forces of alienation, a system in which some people live at the expense of other people's labour, where human dignity is flouted and man's physical and intellectual powers drained by exploitation.

The individual is free where he not only serves as a means of achieving the goals of the ruling class and its party but is himself the chief goal of society, the object of all its plans and provisions. The main condition for the liberation of the individual is the abolition of exploitation of one individual by another, of hunger and poverty, and the reassertion of man's sense of dignity. This was the kind of society of which the utopian socialists and the founders of scientific socialism dreamed. In contrast to bourgeois individualism, socialist collectivism starts off from the interests of the individual— not just the chosen few but all genuine working people. Socialism everywhere requires striking, gifted personalities with plenty of initiative. A person with a sense of perspective is the highest ideal of the creative activity of the socialist society.



Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men, London, Bell and Daldy, 1870, p. 113.

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