Wednesday, March 7, 2018

On Abstractions (1920)

From the February 1920 issue of the Socialist Standard

The majority of us when children at school were told that fable, wrongly attributed to Aesop, relating to the tragedy (from the principal character's point of view) of the dog who dropped, when crossing a stream, the bone he was carrying in order to snatch at the one he saw mirrored in the water. The moral our teachers impressed upon us was that we should not forsake the substance for the shadow.

Yet, curious paradox, we find upon looking around to-day that it is mainly because of toe workers' disregard for the lessons of the fable that Capitalism has not yet fallen. True, the analogy is not quite good, since the working class have not yet held the material bone in their mouth, but though we show how near their grasp it is, they still pursue shadows, placing their trust in specious promises, which rarely materialise, and bring them no relief when they do.

I have seen men pale and wan with hunger and deprivation fling their ragged caps in the air and cheer a royalty riding by, because they believed that to worship a royal fetish and to suffer the pangs of hunger were quite the usual things to do. And thereto lies the whole kernel of working-class misery.

A few years back workers in their millions sprang forth at the first call of the capitalist class to go and fight the workers of another nation. Yet in his heart of hearts scarcely a man of them, if he dared to ask himself, would have said he had a home worth fighting for or a possession to defend. But because of something which he knows by the name of “Patriotism," but which he cannot truthfully define, he donned khaki or field-grey and learned to slaughter his fellows without thinking or troubling to understand the why and the wherefore.

One will often hear a workman prate of his English nationality and consequent "freedom." A curious definition of his freedom, however, impressed itself upon me as I was passing a place where building was in progress. It was after dark, and I saw a long line of human figures pressing against a barrier of wood which separated the area being built upon from the street. I was quite at a loss to account for them and lingered a moment to ascertain, when all at once from somewhere in the rear a shrill whistle blew, and the men, leaping the barrier (that is, the more active among them) dispersed in all directions as quickly as they could. And then I understood! These “freeman,” although it had for some time been too dark to continue to work were forced to remain imprisoned behind a frail barrier until released by the blast of a whistle! It struck me then that humiliation and freedom are synonymous.

But, of course, the men themselves would not have seen the irony of the situation, in fact, if one had suggested to them that a wooden whistle is the measure of their freedom, and that their boasted liberty is a delusion, abuse, and possibly violence, would have been burled at him.

Another pet abstraction of the occidental proletariat, particularly of this country, is “Democracy.” With pride in his voice and dilated chest the average man will tell you that “this is a democratic country,” and, what is more tragic, will believe it, too! But when you point out to him that under autocracies the working class are robbed, and that, be a country nominally ruled by a king, shah, kaiser, or president, poverty and hardship is the lot of the working class all the world over, he will go on worshipping some other abstract fetish rather than come down to the solid facts of hie slave position and hopeless outlook under the present system.

The poor old dog will not grip the solid bone of class consciousness, and the capitalist class know this, hence gods, kings, presidents, motherlands, liberty, patriotism, are all used in turn to satiate the proletarian appetite for abstractions rather than material welfare.

But the Socialist does not despair. He knows that all these things will fail the capitalists in the end, and that his false gods and clay-footed idols will come tumbling about his ears when the slow-witted dog “Proletariat” has learned his lesson and safely crossed the stream to enjoy that which has been denied him so long.
Stanley H. Steele

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