Ramsay MacDonald: Socialism & Society (2)

Labour History Reprints – extracts from the work of Ramsay MacDonald

Socialism and Society

(The first half of Chapter five of Socialism and Society, entitled Towards Socialism, was given in our last issue. The second half is given below.)

MacDonald’s criticism of Trade Unionism from the viewpoint of political socialism is one which could not have been written by any of the Labour Party leaders since Wilson, because the viewpoint of political socialism has disintegrated in the party leadership. Trade Unionism has survived better because of its very limitations, the limitations on which MacDonald focuses. And despite the best efforts of Gavin Laird to reduce it to mere company unionism, the Trade Union movement has not entirely ceased to be a movement. The socialist ideal is not quite as atrophied as it is in the party.)

The best expression of the class war is trade unionism. It is created on the assumption and experience that capital will do its utmost to exploit labour, and that labour ought to do its best to prevent capital from succeeding. The position is a simple and frank recognition of existing industrial fact. It concerns itself with no opposition except that between capital and labour no union of interest except the interest of wage earning. It leads nowhere because it has no ideal goal; its only result can be the bondage of one side to the other. Here is a pure example of class war. Nay, more, it is the class war.

The Trade Unionism, however, which is the purest expression of this simple antagonism between capital and labour, is what is known in this country as the Old Unionism, the Unionism which was opposed to labour politics, to Socialism, to everything except conferences with employers and strikes as a last resort. It was sceptical of any reconstruction, and decided in its opinion that if such reconstruction were to be tried, Trade Unionism was far too wise to have anything to do with it. This state of mind was also characterised by a narrow conception of trade interest as opposed to general interest. It is only the emptiest flattery to tell the Trade Union movement that its various sections ever have, or ever could have, considered anything but their own immediate interests when setting their policy from time to time. Each of the wings of an army for carrying on the class war is bound in the nature of things to fight its battles mainly for its own hand. Trade solidarity rather than proletarian solidarity is the real outcome of a class war in practice, and trade interest is individual interest.

Convey it in what spirit we may, an appeal to class interest is an appeal to personal interest. Socialist propaganda carried on as a class war suggests none of those ideals of moral citizenship with which Socialist literature abounds- “each for all, and all for each”, “service to the community is the sole right of property”, and soon. It is an appeal to individualism, and results in getting men to accept Socialist formulae without becoming Socialists. It springs from a time in the evolution of the Labour Movement when the narrowest creed of the old Trade Unionism was the widest revelation that nature had yet made to men striving to protect themselves against the encroachments of capitalist power. In other words the “class war” idea belongs to the pre-Socialist and pre-scientific phase of the Labour Movement.

I am aware that the Marxian argues that this class struggle is the last, and that when the proletariat have been emancipated the epochs of struggle end. This argument is absurd. The emancipation of the proletariat will of itself be the signal for new struggles if economic sections with apparently opposing interests, and so long as these oppositions are made the main reason for social change, each triumph only leads to many battles, again and again renewed. It is not the emancipation of the numerical majority, or of a class so big as to be “no class but the nation” which matters. What matters is the character of the motive power which effected the emancipation. If that power is the conflict of interests, it will reappear in the new regime, and if it finds no complete class to infuriate, it will enter herds of sections which will then be prepared to fly at each other’s throats. The assumption that by a class triumph Society is to emerge from the epoch if class conflict and sail gaily away upon calm waters of fraternity, can be held only by those who have not ceased to believe in the magical and the irrational.

The antagonisms in society which result in organic change of a progressive nature are not merely economic. They are also intellectual and moral. Man is moved by his head as well as by his pocket, by the growth of social instincts as well as by cupidity. The richest possession of a man is an approving con-science. People who themselves have no quarrel with existing economic arrangements must measure the achievements of existing Society by standards of right and wrong, must enter its dark comers and sojourn among its waste places, its wrecks and its ruins, and must tum in horror and weariness from the spectacle and begin preparing for a new order of things. Everybody does not pile up riches on his inner lights so as to smother them. Even if we regard economics as the mainspring by which history moves, that does not prevent us from recognising that only by a combination of intellectual guidance and economic need does historical change become one and the same thing with progress.

The scheme upon which humanity evolves to higher and more humane stages of existence is either rational or it is not. If it is not, all organised attempts to hasten reform and make it effective – Socialism included – are waste effort. If it is rational, then progress becomes a matter of intellectual conviction, and man ,seeking intellectual peace as well as economic security, will chose which he is to pursue. Even supposing he is a wage-earner and his pursuit of the means of life brings him into conflict with the existing state of Society, his success will not depend upon his richness of experience in poverty, but upon the meaning he places upon the experience and the method he adopts to place himself in different conditions. Economic needs may give volume and weight to the demand for a change, but reason and intelligence, the maturing of the social mind, ideals of social justice grasped so firmly that they have become real existences to those who hold them, give that demand a shape, a policy, a direction. Socialism must, therefore, recognise the_ intellectual as well ~ the economic movement. And if it over emphasises either side, let it be the former. For the pressure of economic need may exert itself in several conceivable directions, not every one of which opens the gateway to progressive advance. A consciousness of class disabilities may be either a motive for reactionary sycophancy or for revolutionary indignation. A man’s poverty may make him a Socialist, but it is as likely to induce him to sell his birthright for a mess of potage. The slum life may blossom into revolution, but it is as likely to flourish into imperialism. The rich are led away from the light by their great possessions, but the sociological pressure of poverty is also directed towards the immediate satisfaction of appetite and not toward the patient and strenuous pilgrimage to a Promised Land.

Not only, therefore, is it incumbent upon Socialism to recognise the existence of an intellectual motive, it must place that motive above the economic, because without it the economic struggle would be devoid of any constructive value, it would be a mere tug-of-war, it would never bring us Socialism.

This line of thought appears to over-look the article in the Marxian creed that Socialism is inevitable. But the industrial and economic inevitability of Socialism is a mere fancy. Itis inevitable only if the intelligence makes it so. It is inevitable only if we are to develop on rational lines; it is inevitable, not because men are exploited or because the fabric of capitalism must collapse under its own weight, but because men are rational. It is the action of reason alone which makes our evils a cause of progress and not the beginning of final deterioration. Intelligence and morality set out the goal which makes effective struggles to escape the existing purgatory. Human evolution is a stretching out, not a being pushed for-ward. Acorns produce oaks, grubs grow into beetles, tadpoles into frogs, but slums, industrial crises, poverty, trusts, do not in the same way grow into Socialism. man was ‘inevitable’ as soon as the amoeba appeared, but in the struggle for life which has taken place since life began, many species have been exterminated, many evolutions have never been completed. Arrested development is as conspicuous as finished processes.

The workmen who vote Liberal and Unionist to-day are perfectly conscious of the drawbacks of a life of wage-earning; they are also quite conscious that they belong to a separate economic and social class – and a great many of them would like to belong to another. In short, in any natural meaning of the words, they· are class conscious. But they are not Socialists, because they are not convinced that the intellectual proposals of Socialism should receive their support.

In order, therefore, that the social organism may perfect itself, there must be the will for perfection and the definite idea as to what changes are required. The  life of the organism is continued through changes, and the organism itself is ever in a state of reorganisation. Nation after nation has risen and fallen, others have risen, have attained a certain civilisation, and there have stuck. But stagnation is impossible for our own Western peoples. They may fall. Political combinations may crush them; the canker of poverty may drive them into degeneracy. But if they are to continue to grow and to adapt themselves to new circumstances, if they are to carry on their development from stage to stage, it must be by the organisation of opinion and the operations of a constructive genius which sees the stage ahead and teaches the people how to attain it. The Socialist appeal, therefore, is to all who believe in social evolution, who agree that the problem which Society now has to solve is that of the distribution of wealth, who trust in democracy, who regard the state not as antagonistic to but as an aspect of individuality, and who are groping onwards with the co-operative faith guiding them. That appeal may find some people in poverty, and they may follow because it offers them economic security; but it will find others in wealth, and they will follow it because it brings order where there is now chaos, organisation where there is now confusion, law where there is now anarchy ,justice where there is now injustice.

Socialism marks the growth of Society, not the uprising of a class. The consciousness which it seeks to quicken is not one of economic class solidarity, but one of social unity and growth towards organic wholeness.

We can now see to what combination of interests and convictions we must appeal, and how we must direct that appeal, in order to create the organic order of the Socialist State out of the atomic chaos of the present day.

I reject what seems to me to be the crude notion of a class war, because class consciousness leads nowhere, and a class struggle may or may not be intelligent. But still, we turn out hopes first of all to the wage earners. They are the most certainly doomed victims of the present chaos; they suffer most from the inability of the present system to provide employment, wages, life; they are least buoyed up by elusive hopes that a lucky turn of the wheel of fortune will pitch them up on the backs of others; they are the helpless spills tossing on the troubled waters of present day strife; their attempts to share in the benefits of an efficient method of production result in little but turmoil, hunger and poverty; and above all, their needs have now become the chief concern of Society, because in fullness of time social organisation is being tested by its human result, and because the economic enfranchisement of people naturally treads upon the heels of their political emancipation.

And it is of special note for the moment, that they have been subject recently to rebuffs and attacks in the Press, the Courts of Law and Parliament, and thus have been taught the necessity of political unity and independent organisation. The politics of an enlightened industrial democracy is of necessity social, and is aimed at ending experiences of unemployment, old age pauperism, and so on. Hence, as one of the laws of evolution is that need creates organs, redistributes and organises functions and changes biological types, working class policy must be directed towards the organisation and the development of the organs and functions of mutual aid in Society. So soon as serious attempt has been made to frame a policy directed to such ends, it will be found that monopoly in land, and the use of industrial capital for individual profit, are the sources of the experience which Society now seeks to shun, and must consequently be supplanted by public ownership and production for use before labour can enter into enjoyment of the blessings which an efficient method of wealth production makes possible. Labour has but one intelligent road of advance – that of economic and industrial reconstruction : Socialism.

Amongst the wage earners, therefore, we must expect to find in fullest development and in forms most political and effective for organic change, those vital and vitalising disturbances which indicate active life pushing out to higher forms of organisation. But those disturbances, as has been shown, are not purely economic, and are not therefore confined to the wage earners, and consequently in order to gather together the forces making for Socialism, the basis of the movement must be such that everyone sharing in the disturbed promptings may be included.

All barrier phrases and sectional dogmas must be removed from Socialism. The experiments in factory legislation, in public health regulations, in education, in municipalisation, are pointing out to men of all classes the desirability of going yet further along the road which leads to Socialism, and are forming in the minds of men of all classes a conception of Society – of the community and the individual – formed on Socialist principles. When we think systematically of the scattered fragments of reform promised by the political parties, we see that they are but the foreshadowing of Socialism; when the tendencies begun by scores of experiments – factory laws, public health laws, municipalisation – are followed out, joined together, systematised, Socialism is the result. This completeness of organisation, this idea of national and communal growth, this state of business efficiency, nothing short of it and nothing which is sectional in it, should be laid down as the basis for Socialism. And the political movement which is to express, and ultimately satisfy, this need for the organic unity of Society, must be a movement of the whole society and not of one of its functions – the working class. As the brain moves obediently to the grossest as well as to the purest promptings of the needs of the living thing, so must the political organ in society be in touch with the purest promptings of the moral intelligence as well as the grossest promptings of economic need, but both must be united if a more perfect form of Society is to be created.

Economic hardships are the flints on the road, but these flints may develop on us the hoofs of beasts. or may compel us to use our intelligence to find smoother paths. Socialism is the latter alternative.


This article appeared in May 1993, in Issue 35 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.