Before Marx and Engels placed Socialism on a scientific basis those who believed that capitalism was only a passing phase in the history of the human race often endeavoured to sketch plans for a future State. To-day we know that all such plans were Utopian dreams. We know it because the progress that has been made in the means and methods of production has left those plans—based on the then existing means —far behind. We know, too, that any such pictures of the future we might sketch to-day, if based on our present methods of production, would be idle dreams, because all the time we are hovering on the brink of new discoveries that, at any moment, may fundamentally change our method of living. Beyond the elementary facts that we, as human beings, shall continue to need food, clothing, and shelter, and shall be obliged to obtain them by some labour process, the future is unknown, and all efforts to lift the veil, or plan details of the future, are waste of time and energy.
The Socialist does not pretend to foretell the future. All that he claims is that he understands the present, with its class ownership of the means of life and the consequent enslavement of his class. The defenders and agents of the ruling class deny this enslavement and claim that Socialism would result in loss of liberty to the individual. It is evident, however, that class ownership and control implies a class that is subjugated and therefore without liberty.
Socialism, on the other hand, being a system of society where the means of life are owned in common and democratically controlled, must give the maximum freedom to the individual because there is equality of ownership and control.
Under capitalism the worker is subjected to restrictions and rules, and subjugated to a discipline which would be hard to beat. It is only the master class that possesses liberty, and their liberty means working class slavery.
The Materialist Conception of History, discovered by Marx, Engels, and Morgan, besides assisting to place Socialism on a scientific basis and explaining past history, also explains the present and makes it clear to us why we cannot foretell the future. The intellectual life and institutions of society are the result of—and can only be explained by—the means and methods of producing and distributing wealth. As we cannot foretell the future development of the means of life, the institutions, intellectual life, and general conditions must remain hidden.
Of what does the intellectual life of society consist ? After the commercial and technical sides (which are obviously determined in their nature by the means and methods of production) comes politics. Analyse politics and we find, first, international relations, treaties, diplomacy, and all the quarrels and agreements between the ruling class of different nations. This is the territorial side and divides the working class by boundaries for the purpose of arranging exploitation. Secondly, the legal changes and social reforms made necessary by the continual changes in the means and methods of production and distribution. The poverty of the working class increases because the social system is out of harmony with the means and methods of production; and this causes numerous disputes between capitalists and workers. The settlement or prevention of these disputes is a constant theme for discussion in Parliament and in the Press. Every debate in the House of Commons is, in one form or another, the outcome of social conditions in process of change. Social relationships, the relations between man and man, or between class and class, do not stand still; and the cause of their change is the evolution of the material things—tools, machinery, etc.,—on which man depends for his subsistence.
The political history of the past has been a succession of struggles 'twixt subject and ruling classes for the control of power. With the necessary physical force on its side to dominate society, each class has in its turn secured its position as far as possible, and settled down to enjoy the fruits of its victory. No previous class in history, risng to power, has ever doubted its ability to use it—why should the working class ?
The forerunners of the modern capitalist class in the sixteenth century were themselves a subject class. They threw off the yoke of the lords and monarchy, and commenced their rule with no settled policy beyond the determination to be masters of society. Their policy has never been any different down to the present day. The executive government deals with every situation as it arises. They cannot tell what problems will call for settlement in a year's time. Not knowing what the conditions will be, the problems that result from them cannot be known, consequently every act of government can only be an expedient to prevent friction, to avert a crisis, or to restore a balance that has been upset by changes in the means of producing wealth, and so preserve the even continuity of capitalist rule.
In short, history and experience tell us that it is impossible to foretell the future. Why should we try to do so? What we are concerned with is the present—how to make the best of life now. How do the ruling class achieve that ? By using the power conceded to them by the bulk of society, the working class. While the workers are asking questions about the details of a system which they can only arrange in accordance with the stage of development reached by the means of production, they are neglecting to understand and grasp their opportunities to-day. Is it not sufficient for the workers that they should be free from the domination of the capitalist class, and, controlling their own destinies, shape their lives in accordance with their knowledge of nature ? What have they to fear when free ? What must they suffer when not free ?
But "who is to do the dirty work?" a capitalist agent asks. And the half-starved wage-slave who has never done anything else all his life says "Ah! that's it, who indeed?" The absurdity of all such questions is apparent when we remember that man in the most critical period of his life's history, in the morning of time, when beset with enemies and dangers on every hand, treasured his freedom above everything else, and associating with his fellows on a basis of equality, controlled his social actions democratically.
Man's confidence in, and adherance to, these two principles, carried him safely through the age of savagery. His abandonment of these principles was the beginning of the long class rule, in which successive ruling classes have robbed the workers of the results of their toil.
Society has passed through the different stages from savagery to civilisation and machine industry. In the process those who have produced the world's wealth have submitted to various forms of slavery, each more oppressive than the preceding. From chattel slavery—its crudest form—to wage slavery—where the slave condition is veiled by the so-called freedom of contract. At first the incongruities of class ownership of the means of life and the commodity character of human labour-power are not recognised by either class. But as the system develops and poverty and squalor on the one hand, and enormous wealth and power on the other, become more pronounced men seek to know the cause ; and finding it in the fundamental principles that constitute the basis of the social system, they seek, according to their class, either to abolish the system or discredit the truths discovered.
Actuated by self-interest the ruling class hurries on the development the consumation of which threatens their extinction, while at the same time they do their utmost to retard any conscious action on the part of the working class to place society in harmony with the means and methods of production. Their first line of action drives the workers into worse poverty, while their second is aimed to prevent them seeing the cause of, or the remedy for, their poverty. Thus the task of harmonising the social system with the more highly developed means of production is wholly that of the working class, and must be carried through against the conscious antagonism of the master class.
To overcome this antagonism appears, at first sight, a stupendous task, but the means for its achievement are within reach. The knowledge is available and scientifically arranged. Communication is easy. The workers have the bulk of the votes and can acquire political power when they are ready. All that is wanted is for men and women to attain the knowledge, rouse their fellows from their apathy, and pass on the knowledge to them. Socialism can be established as soon as there is a majority of Socialists. The first step, therefore, is to make Socialists. With a clear majority Socialists can secure a majority in the executive councils, and through them control the armed forces. The possibility of the master class using these against the workers is thereby removed, and the workers can proceed at once to the second step—the restoration to the people of the land and all the means of production and distribution. The next step will be the organisation of production in such a manner that the workers have complete control—not a share in management, such as labour leaders plead for.
First must come ownership: until that is effected the workers can have no control, either over the means or methods of production, or over their own conditions of employment.
There is no question of morality or justice about this expropriation of the capitalist class. The wonder is that the workers have tolerated the system so long. A small class in society owns all those things required by man to produce for himself the necessaries of life. This small class imposes slavery on those who do not own. To free themselves from slavery must be the desire and the aim of the working class. But they must have confidence, based on knowledge, in their associated power to arrange the details of production and distribution for use. On such a basis they can tread the future without fear, because science has destroyed the superstitious terrors of the dark ages and given us a clearer understanding of the laws of nature. The days of oracles are past; the workers to-day, producing all wealth, understand all the secrets of production. It is they who discover all improvements in means and methods. Without a ruling class they can still carry on, producing wealth for their own use and consumption. Let them, first, understand ; second, take possession, and exercising full control, face the future determined to use nature's gifts for the well-being and happiness of society free, at last, from the withering blight of class rule.