A Short Story from the May 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
It’s a long time since I’ve hail my eyes tested, the main reason being that I have no confidence in my ability to hold out against the standard opticians' con trick of no new lenses without new frames. In the end, however, I make the discovery that one eye is practically sightless, and being even more terrified of going blind than of being conned, I nerve myself and make an appointment.
The appointment is for 4.45: I’m kept waiting until almost 5.30. (Sublimate my anger by reminding myself that I might be going blind, or even have a brain tumour, and so can’t create a scene.)
The eye tester finally puts in an appearance. He is very old. After perfunctorily apologising for the delay, he informs me that he is not “a mere optician, you know”, but a real, bona-fide, fully-trained eye surgeon. Polite to a fault, 1 murmur that I will not hold it against him. The eye surgeon caps a hand to his car and barks “What?” I say that I am very pleased to hear it.
The actual eye testing is over in about five seconds flat. (I wonder how much they get paid for it. but remind myself that at least I don't appear to be going blind or have a brain tumour.) Before taking me out to meet the mere optician and be conned into buying new frames for my new lenses, the eye surgeon leans forward to peer at the party badge which I wear on my lapel. “What’s that?” he barks. “Socialist Workers’ Party?” (He is obviously short-sighted as well as deaf.) I correct him, in a loud bawl: “Socialist Party of Great Britain.” He peers closer to get at the small print. “World for the Workers, eh? So who are the workers?”
"You”. I shout, “and me”.
The eye surgeon doesn’t like this; he does not wish to be lumped with the rest of us as a mere worker. He informs me that he is a member of one of the higher professions. Still polite, I inquire of him (in the obligatory shout) whether he does not have to sell his labour power in order to survive? He catches but the one word: labour. Ten minutes later, when he has finished, I yell at him again. “Do you possess a private income that you can live on?” This question infuriates him even more. No. he does not possess a private income. He has had to work for his living. Why, there were times at the start of this career when he was working up to eighty hours a week.
I ask him, in that case, why he does not consider himself to be a worker? The answer, apparently, is that he is “an intellectual”. He tells me that I am talking to a “very intellectual type”. When he was in the army he was given a special test which proved that the higher echelons of the medical profession were amongst the world's intellectual elite. I refuse to be sidetracked. I ask him what point he is trying to make. For a moment, such is his intellectual power, he is at a loss; but after a few seconds comes back gamely with the contention that what he calls “the brains” of society must always be rewarded at a higher rate than what he calls “the rest”. I remind him that what we were discussing was whether or not he was a worker.
Mysteriously, at this juncture, he starts talking about Russia.
I give up on the class question. We talk about Russia, instead. Having disposed of the myth that Russia is in any way a “socialist country”, I go on to explain what socialism is all about. I yell at him about how common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution will mean the end of class exploitation. I bawl at him about how every human being will have free access to the social wealth. He suddenly cottons on: we are talking about a society without money. This is plainly an absurdity! “My dear young lady . . . how can you have a world without money?" We haven’t even got enough top medical men now (His words: his claim) so how on earth do I suppose we should have them in a society where they were not only not going to be paid more than other people, but weren’t even going to be paid at all?
I ask him whether, in such a society, he himself would still choose to be an eye surgeon? Or had he only become an eye surgeon for the money? Indignantly, he repudiates the suggestion: there are such things, my dear young lady, as ethics. So what makes him imagine, I shout, that in socialism we wouldn't have enough doctors? The answer comes back pat: it’s nothing to do with money, after all, it’s the simple lack of brain power. There isn’t enough brain power in the world to supply us with all the doctors we need. Doctors, he repeats, are “highly intellectual types”.
I resist the temptation to argue the point (he'll only start telling me again about the special test that “proved” it). Instead, I inform him that there is in the world a great deal of human potential which under a capitalist system is never allowed to be fulfilled; and that, moreover, in socialism a vast range of so-called “intellectual" activities necessary for the running of capitalism would be rendered obsolete, thus releasing large numbers of men and women to undertake far more socially beneficial tasks than they do at present.
To this-stumped, presumably, for any rational follow-up-the eye surgeon triumphantly informs me that 1 have not taken human nature into account. I ask him, in a bellow, what he conceives human nature to be. It seems that he conceives it as being something rather nasty. He does not personally feel the urge to rape and kill and cheat and pillage, but apparently most of the rest of us do. I start bawling into his ear about how most of us, under capitalism, live in conditions of chronic insecurity and stress, but before I can get very far he produces his trump card: what about natural wickedness? I have forgotten natural wickedness!
We have a long shout into each other’s faces about whether natural wickedness exists or whether it does not, during the course of which he suddenly makes the astonishing discovery that I must be an atheist. I accept the charge, and off we go again, on a different tack. He is very sorry for me that 1 do not share his belief in god; I am very sorry for him that he is so self-deluding. I tell him that his belief in god is nothing but ignorance and superstition and that he is like a child believing in fairies; whereupon he informs me that many medical men, “amongst the highest intellects in the land”, share his belief: at which I lost all credibility by resorting to the language of the gutter and snarling that there has never been any divine law which states that medical men shall not be capable of making arrant ********* of themselves. The eye surgeon, fortunately, does not hear this. He is too busy losing all credibility himself by relating a long, rambling tale of how, during a time of personal tragedy, he only survived by reason of his faith; thus proving irrefutably that his faith is based on scientific truth and god exists.
At this point, I collapse beneath the weight of accumulated illogicalities. Neither my throat nor my temper is up to continuing the struggle. These self- confessed intellectuals can wear a person out.
I pick up my prescription and say stupidly that we’ll resume the discussion in the afterlife. The eye surgeon pats me on the head and tells me that “in spite of everything" he is glad to have met me. I tell him that I am glad to have met him, too.
I tell his assistant, the mere optician, that I want my new lenses put into my old frames. I just wish I’d told the eye surgeon himself . . .