|Illustration by George Meddemmen.|
From the August 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard
There is an American university of some academic esteem where it is the regular practice for the Professor of Political Ideas to begin his first class of the semester by showing his students a film of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. After eyewitnessing the portrayed depravity of the public school boys who are Golding’s model of human nature, the students sit silently to await the oracular words of their teacher: “Okay, now we know what human beings are like. If we propose to talk about politics let us never forget that these humans are our human material”. There commenceth the lecture and, all too often, locketh the impressionable minds.
Few novels have so eloquently served the cause of capitalist ideology which contends that humans are inherently aggressive, gullible, self-serving, easily led and un-cooperative than Golding’s Lord of the Flies which was first published in 1954. What is the novel about? Its plot is the conventional stuff of schoolboy adventure yarns. An aeroplane crashes and the survivors find themselves on a coral island, there to survive until they are rescued. It soon becomes clear that the personalities of the boys will determine their functions: the leaders, the followers, the outcasts. Soon they are organized hierarchically and, soon after, divided tribally. The adventure is provided by the boys’ growing fear of The Beast, an apparently natural danger which threatens to destroy them. Life adapts to a chain of ordered survivalism in defence against the Beast. There are those who think The Beast an invention and others who seek to hunt and kill it. But the reader, guided by Golding, comes soon to see The Beast is neither an infantile invention of self-torment nor a conquerable enemy from without.
The Beast is the metaphor of the natural darkness which is within all of the children – all humans – our inborn nature, no less. And in fighting the dark enemy, as the children proceed to do, it is the evil within themselves which becomes manifest. Encountered by Simon, one of the boys, this symbolic role of The Beast is articulated: “Fancy thinking The Beast was something you could hunt and kill!”, it says, “I’m part of you. Close, close, close . . . Why things are what they are”. In the final struggle against The Beast the full brutality of the children is exposed in an orgy of betrayal, mass hysteria, leader-worship and death. Golding has taken his little specimens of human nature and left them on an island exposed for all to see; how quickly the veneer of civilized behaviour turns into barbarism and boys become flies.
So what are we to make of this parable? If we were the students of the above-mentioned professor, how should we be expected to think? That when left to ourselves we humans will survive as beasts of the jungle. For beasts constrained by Bibles is all we can aspire to be. Indeed, Leighton Hodson, in his students’ handbook on Golding, states explicitly, lest any be in doubt, that The Beast “is only an external device for referring to the evil that is within people” (Golding, p.26).
No writer comes to a novel with only a story in mind. The trite romances of Barbara Cartland are never divorced from the aristocratic respect for parasitism which is her obsessive faith, just as Noonan’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is intimately linked to his experience as a skilled painter and a socialist (and, moreover, a socialist building worker amongst the crass conservatism of Tory wage-slaves in stultifying Hastings). So it was with Golding. He did not write the most powerful and popular literary defence of innate human depravity by accident. And we can prove this.
Despite having at one time paid some sort of lip-service to some sort of socialism, Golding was essentially an ardent anti-socialist. He referred to Marx, Darwin and Freud as “the three most crushing bores of the Western world”. Having dispensed summarily with the thought of those who might have saved him from his blinkered outlook, where did he turn? On that point there is no need for doubt: Golding scraped the very bottom of the barrel of ideas in defence of property relationships and therein discovered an abundant supply of long-fermented Original Sin, a doctrine upon which he remained intoxicated throughout his life. Here is how he put it in an interview with Biles published in 1970:
“Man is a fallen being. He is gripped by original sin. His nature is sinful and his state perilous.”
Fifteen years later, in conversation with Professor Carey, the Merton Professor of English at Oxford, Golding was peddling the same old tripe:
“Original sin – I’ve been really rather lumbered with original sin . . . I suppose that . . . both by intellect and emotion – intellectually after emotionally – I’m convinced of original sin. I’m convinced of it in the Augustinian way . . . the root of our sin is there, in the child. As soon as it has any capacity of acting on the world outside it will be selfish; and, of course, original sin and selfishness – the words could be interchangeable . . . You can only learn unselfishness by liking and by loving” (William Golding, the Man and his Books - A Tribute on His 75th Birthday, p. 174)
So, Golding’s little boys on their island are not just any kids: they are sinners, born selfish and bound to fight their inner evil. Augustine was made a saint for advancing this kind of ideological child abuse and Golding was given a Nobel price (worth more than a sainthood in the current market).
Socialists are historical materialists and contend that humans are born neither good nor evil. We are born human and therefore possess the unique capacity to adapt culturally in accordance with the environmental conditions which surround us. In opposing this, Golding’s plot includes some highly convenient ideological weights which serve to tilt the story’s conclusion his way. Firstly, the boys we meet are not any boys, but public school boys: members of that privileged minority who are bred for tribalistic division. Would children who were the products of a caring community, not abandoned to the threatening rituals of the incarcerating dorm, have behaved differently, we may ask. And in Golding’s story here are children as abandoned survivalists in a hostile environment. In short, Golding takes unrepresentative children in a highly untypical situation and then, with the dogmatic wisdom of one who can with one breath dismiss Marx, Darwin and Freud, throws up his arms and says “Look, this is what children are like. And because children are humans, this is what humans are like. Case proven”. It convinces the American professor.
Anthony Storr, the psychiatrist, wrote of how Golding’s literary theme is confirmed by experiments in which children are taken to holiday camps, put into hostile gangs and only parted on the point when they are about to murder one another. It is quite remarkable how men with degrees in pure ignorance can express themselves freely upon matters which are routinely contradicted by experimental results. No, children do not rush with enthusiasm towards violent situations, but enter into them only under enormous pressure: extreme frustration, upbringing in a culture of routinized violence or, as in Storr’s evidence, monetary payment by psychological experimenters whose aim is to encourage children to behave anti-socially. As the more serious social psychologist, Herman Kelman, has written, “we can learn more by looking not at the motives for violence, but at the conditions under which the usual moral inhibitions against violence become weakened” (Journal of Social Issues, 1973, p. 38). Given that wise advice, would it not make more sense to ask why a group of isolated, frightened and strangely bred children should behave like beasts than to assume that their beastliness is within them – and within us?
Golding died recently and, unsurprisingly, the sort of people who praise great rogues praised him. By all accounts he was a decent enough fellow. The issue is not the virtue of the man – or even the skill of his pen or the power of his plots. The novel, in a time of war, can no more be neutral than can the military band or the cook in the arms factory canteen. And when there is a war of ideas between those of us who refuse to submit to the self-hating conception of human sin and inherent selfishness, and those who blast out such ideology with the weight of a mighty publishing and cinema industry behind them, novels are weapons. Read as it is intended, Lord of the Flies is a literary shot against the reader’s consciousness of human power; it is disarming and enervating and, for the present writer, one of the most anti-human novels of our age.