From the June 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialism—the society we desire and work for— means a world in which all people will be social equals. There will be no owners of property and no non-owners, no rich and no poor, neither superior nor inferior classes, “ races ” or sexes. Why, it may be asked, is such a state of affairs desirable?
There is, of course, one very obvious answer. It will give better material conditions to those who now go hungry, badly clothed or poorly housed—in short, to those who suffer any form of poverty. It is the expression of their demand, as Oscar Wilde put it, to be seated at the board instead of being grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table.
The justice of the claim to better living conditions is seldom disputed; it is only opposed on allegedly practical grounds. No one (except, possibly, the religious fanatic) says that he would wish the hungry to remain hungry. Instead it is claimed that there is “ just not enough food to go round.” If the prime social mover were satisfaction of people’s needs, all forms of poverty would quickly melt in the warm sun of common humanity.
Unfortunately, the existence of class society based on property deflects the human purpose, which is to live fully and harmoniously. Men and women who enter into the antagonistic relationships of master to slave (lord to serf, capitalist to worker, etc.) are denied the opportunities of human development which only equality can bring.
"Free access to what is needed” is a feature of socialist society which contrasts markedly with the un-free access allowed in property-based society. Property is restrictive; its institutions are concerned with guarding the rights of exclusive possession. But the guard who watches a prisoner becomes almost as much a prisoner as the prisoner himself. To be a member of a dominant class may be vastly preferable to being a subject—but it is no substitute for living in equalitarian society.
Socialism is needed for the full development of the human personality. People who are denied direct participation in living (apart from merely existing) must to-day accept spurious substitutes. In place of useful and satisfying work, there is the need to sell your energies as a commodity on the labour market; in place of creative leisure (which should be continuous with work) there is an entertainment industry seeking to sell you a good time by proxy; in place of living with people whose interests and outlook you share, there is either the family (economic unit) or the impersonality of being some form of paying guest. The mental problems of the latter type are not really separable from the physical needs to which the term “poverty” more usually refers.
Most people are more or less aware of the poverty of the capitalist way of life. This awareness often takes the form of a feeling of frustration, of wanting something different without really knowing what it is or how to get it. To some extent, this is mitigated by the growth of the means of mass influence—newspapers, cinema, radio, television—so that everyone knows that there are millions of others who are also “ tuned in ” to the same influences and are, so to speak, in the same boat. If it is customary to want to win the football pools, for example, there is also a feeling of solidarity among the countless losers making the best of things until next Saturday.
One way in which an individual overcomes the feeling of insignificance, in comparison with what he feels to be the power of forces outside himself, is by conforming to them. He ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns, and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be. The American National Comic Weekly assures us that the four out of five adults who read comics“ live with the personalities. They take their habits from them. They wear what they wear, eat what they eat, and talk like them, and even act like them.” This appears to be a typical over-statement on the part of those who are concerned to make the greatest claims on behalf of their product, in this case, the comics.
It is significant that most aspects of our lives have that “mass-produced” look. It is not just the material things that are stereotyped. Take a few random examples. Our humour is repetitive, our entertainment " canned,” and our sport actively engaged in by a tiny minority with the rest as passive spectators. There are a few individual artists—and countless impersonators and impressionists, intentional or otherwise. Last year every girl looked like Elizabeth Taylor (well, tried to, anyway)—this year we are assured that every girl is to appear as another Audrey Hepburn. The dull uniformity of male garb is notorious, and even the sartorial rebels conform to the prevailing fashion of rebellion. Perhaps these are some of the least harmful ways in which monotony expresses itself but, in being taken for granted, they may not be recognised as part of commodity-living.
The capacity for original thinking is stultified in present society. The fact that aspects of our “ private lives” become typical questions on which experts and guidance councils pronounce opinion encourages the view that the problems of social life are too complicated for the average man or woman to grasp. The popularity of various kinds of readers' advice columns in the newspapers and magazines testifies to the willingness and even anxiety of people to consult the specialist or leave it to the experts—” Gods With Heads of Clay,” as we called them last month in another connection.
It can probably be accounted a growth in human freedom that to-day our lives are shaped by anonymous authorities like “public opinion” and “common sense” rather than by dictators in person. But the socialist way of life, in which all people will participate as equals, stands quite apart from any such forms of compulsion. It is the overcoming of a set of social relationships, of a system which discourages people from trusting their own capacity to think about those problems that really matter.
We have said that Socialism will develop human personality. We must confess to having no definite ideas of what particular form this personality will take. Our goal is not so much an ideal of perfection as a condition for free development. It must be sufficient for us to catch glimpses of the future in the ideas and actions of people to-day. We know that where interests are in harmony people work together with a will. To-day antagonistic interests predominate. We know that, given half a chance, most of us want to express ourselves in some artistic way (in the widest sense of the term). To-day we must earn a living. The growth of socialist ideas means an increase in the number of people who understand society, in the dual sense of knowing how to abolish property and how to really live without it
It may be that the cynic will remark that a world without the excitement of war, the pride of possessing property, and the delight in human inequality will be a dull place indeed. In dismissing the first two of these conditions as psychological perversions, we are not in any way passing judgment on individuals—only on the social system. To those who get to know about Socialism there is something exciting and rather wonderful about the prospect of all people living in cooperative harmony and on terms of equality. We have tried to show that, far from making people equal in the sense of being the same, Socialism offers the prospect of a richly variegated society—how can it be otherwise when human needs, among which is variety, are the prime consideration?