Editorial from the March 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard
Mr. Joseph E. Davies, formerly American Ambassador in Moscow, has placed on record a conversation he had with the Ambassador from Afghanistan on the interesting question of incentives. Here are the views of the latter:—
He thought that the Soviets were doing a great deal of good in many ways. But the wisdom of the centuries, he said, disclosed that there was very little progress without the incentive of personal interest. Human nature had not yet arrived at, and probably would not for a long time reach, a point where men would simply work for the joy of the working.
The incentive for work and progress was personal interest and would be for a long time to come. This wise and fine man impressed me with his sincerity and his philosophy. It may be, he said, that this experiment might work out and evolve successfully by making allowances for and being modified by these fundamental facts in human nature. It might be one of the steps in the evolution of progress. Time would tell, said he.
Here we have the representatives of the slumbering East and the wideawake West able to find common ground in their views on human nature. That in itself is a curious and significant circumstance, for have we not been told by a very conservative observer that there is not one human race but two races, an East and a West, and that “never the twain shall meet”? But meet they did and summarily disposed of Socialism in a brief discussion.
Next, if it be permitted to apply their conclusion to themselves, may we ask what was their own little game? Seeing that men (including Ambassadors) do not work for the joy of working or for any other motive except the incentive of personal interest, what was the personal interest that caused them to leave Washington and' Kabul for the voyage to Moscow? It could not have been a desire to serve their respective nations or the human race as a whole, or a liking for the work, for by definition men simply do not do that sort of thing. Was it nothing but the salary, or the ambition to wear a cocked hat and knee breeches and gain coveted decorations, or some even less reputable private racket? And one of them fine and wise and sincere with it all! It would be interesting to ask them a number of questions, but as that is impossible we must take our examination elsewhere.
As it happens, the newspaper in which the above conversation is recorded (the Sunday Express, February 22nd, 1942) publishes several items which may help us. The editorial denounces the British Civil Service as a "dead and numbing hand stretched over all our national life." It concedes that Civil Servants ate "impeccably honest, scrupulous, hard-working and efficient," and that they are "often idealists," yet they are vigorously condemned because they are said to resent and resist every measure which threatens to disturb the even tenor of their lives and their ponderous and unprogressive ways of doing business.
Elsewhere in the same newspaper is a bitter attack on amateur pilferers, men and women who were honest before the war, but are now stealing to the extent of £2,000,000 in the past two years.
Then the editor has a slashing article on the men and women, in and out of the Forces, who are half-hearted in their efforts, or are seeking to make big profits or slack at their work. He mentions, for example, the soldier in the tank who says, "Half a crown a day for me, while it lasts; 30s. a week and starvation for my wife if I don’t come through,” and the civilian worker whose attitude to the war is: “I’ve got a soft job out of it." He compares them with the Germans, Japanese, Russians and Chinese, who, he says, work and fight superbly because they are inspired visionaries, "To each this war is a holy war."
From all of which we perceive that there seems to be something amiss with the simple doctrine of the two Ambassadors. If personal interest is and must be the only incentive why shouldn’t the Civil Servant further his personal interest in his allegedly sheltered life and career? Why shouldn’t the worker on docks or railways pilfer? Why shouldn’t every individual prove his normal human nature by looking no further than what appears to be his own immediate personal benefit?
The answer is that the supposed obstacle placed by unchanging human nature in the way of work and progress is a myth. Human knowledge and understanding and with them human conduct have changed, are changing, and will continue to change. With the development, through human agency, of mankind's control of natural forces and the power of producing wealth in greater abundance the potentialities of human co-operation have been more and more understood and consciously fostered. Co-operation was never entirely absent, though in the past much of the work of human beings was individual and it was possible to think and act in terms of individual effort and personally benefit from it. Now that the productive powers of co-operative effort have reached gigantic new levels it has become a possibility for each individual to benefit enormously from the conscious reorganisation of society on a Socialist basis. Where then will be the difficulty about incentive? All that will be needed is that the individual shall intelligently appreciate the place he will occupy in the life and work of society as a whole. The worker to-day who understood nothing of political organisation might refuse to take part in an election on the plea that one vote counts for nothing in an electorate of tens of millions. So also under Socialism he might lack incentive to work if he knew nothing of the part he plays in co-operative production and the benefit he and every other person will derive therefrom. Yet the understanding voter uses his vote and the understanding worker will gladly and enthusiastically play his part under Socialism.
This presupposes, of course, that before we can have Socialism there must be a Socialist majority to make Socialism a working system—but Socialists have never supposed otherwise.
To achieve that end it will be necessary to change the worker’s understanding, but it will not be necessary to change his human nature; though under Socialism we may anticipate a little difficulty at first with heads-in-the-air ex-Ambassadors and tough ex-editors of newspapers whose understanding of the favourable potentialities of human nature is not profound.