Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Matter of Definition (1948)

From the June 1948 issue of the Socialist Standard

A great obstacle standing in the way of the spread of socialist propaganda is the term Socialism. In 1892 a Parisian political paper, Le Figaro, published over 600 definitions. In 1924 a Labour Councillor, Dan Griffiths, compiled and edited a book called “What is Socialism,” which had 263 definitions; most of them different. The definitions were by prominent Labour leaders. According to them, Socialism is a science, a religion, an attitude, a process, a way of living, a demand, an atmosphere, a name, a faith, “sunlight opposed to darkness," “the navigation of social current by the liberated soul of man," etc. In recent years Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Churchill with his “ We’re all socialists, now," have played their part in adding to the confusion.

There would appear to he some ground for the statement often expressed that everyone has their own idea what socialism means. But the absurdity of the attitude implied in that statement, if it were applied to everyday affairs, is clearly shown in the schoolboy conundrum: “What is the difference between an elephant and a postage stamp?" “ I don’t know!" “I wouldn’t like to send you for a postage stamp."

The obstacle can’t be overcome by using another term. Obviously that would make “confusion worse confounded." Therefore the only solution is some clear thinking regarding the term itself.

We think in words. To think effectively we must have clear definite meanings for the word we use. For this purpose, the knowledge how to form a definition i6 helpful and can be found in any textbook on logic. It should be remembered that definitions are provisional but they are useful guides to understanding. The three most important terms used in forming a definition are—first, the genus, the class to which the object being defined belongs, for example, man is an animal. The second term is the difference, any essential characteristic distinguishing the object being defined from all other objects in the class. In our example, man is a tool-making animal. The third term, property, is any quality arising from the essential characteristic, as in the example, upright posture and co-ordination of hand and brain are qualities suggested by the essential characteristic, tool-making. The formula used by logicians in definition is the genus and the difference and it should be the difference bringing out the most interesting properties.

Applying this formula to the present form of society we find the essential difference between the present form and past forms is. that the capitalist class own the means of living and consequently the working class are propertyless—a free but exploited class. Interesting properties arising from this difference are, the division of society into two classes, the wages system, production of commodities—articles produced for sale—and general use of money. Therefore the definition given in the first of the eight principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain that capitalism “is based upon the ownership of the means of living (i.e., land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone all wealth is produced ” more than fulfils the requirements of the formula.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain maintains that as the enslavement of the working class follows from the ownership of the means of living by the capitalist class the interests of the working class can only be served by the establishment of socialism. A system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community. Here again we have the genus and the difference bringing out the most interesting properties; classless, as all will have free access to the means of living; wageless, as it won’t be necessary for any section of society to sell their labour power in.order to live; moneyless, as money arises only to facilitate exchange between private owners; commodityless, as articles will be produced for the use of all and not for sale.
J. Trotman

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