Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 12, No. 9. August 10th 1949
Inspecting a Spectre—carefully
Inspecting a Spectre—carefully
James Winchester,"The Spike",
The radical-red variety has no hesitation in using arguments for his philosophy which in any other man he would decry as a perversion of intellectual honesty. There is, however, one merit in the dogmatism of Mr. Winchester: once you set out as clearly as he has done that something is true whether it is the fact that two and two make four or the fallacy that socialism is true, the refuge of intellectual licence is gone forever. Something is true at last and the deluded dogmatists are one with Mr. Winchester in his belief that some things are clearly false.
The Rationalists dogmatise their views on the impossibility of dogma and the absurdity never strikes them. Some radicals were once one with them, in this dogma of there being no dogma, but the Redicals prefer to avoid argument altogether. Experience has shown that intelligent and reasonable argument with persons as well practised as themselves and even less so is dangerous. Their way out has been the use of various distracting techniques. One of these has been a great vagueness: words of high emotive value undefined and liberally used like spices in bad cooking. "The People" fight for "freedom" and "democracy" against the "forces of reaction", the "fascists" and "warmongers" for the inevitable triumph of the "people's socialist democracy". Who knows for certain the meanings of any of these words any more than we know just exactly what Mr. Winchester means when he speaks of "socialism"?
A political fresher knows as surely as Mr. Winchester that "socialism" can mean at least three things and since the three of them cannot be wholly true, nor all intended, we are left to decide for ourselves what is meant and what Mr. Winchester would tell us is true. For him the word may have a preciseness of meaning which is satisfying enough to allow him to proclaim its truth without first telling us what he is proclaiming. This is not sufficient for those who may think it false, because they are also sure that some things are true, of which perhaps Mr. Winchester's particular brand of socialism may not be one. You can avoid definition for convenience but once avoided then it is a presumption to try by means as subtle as his to state the truth, the truth to be a word of at least three meanings.
Can I presume that Mr. Winchester is not interested in key socialism? I think so. Then I am left with a choice between communism, the philosophy of materialism and that other sort of socialism, the politico-economic theory of state of ownership. Communism is a complete philosophy, a totalitarian philosophy which attempts to provide a complete framework for human activity. Socialism, except in the communist sense, does not go beyond state ownership and is therefore a compromise between politics and those other philosophies which may exist where that inherently dangerous idea may apply.
None of the facts in Mr. Winchester's prologue to his ambitious statement quoted above are conclusive evidence for the truth of either of his possible meanings. Persons who may sometimes take that attitude which is later regarded as frightfully right do not necessarily take that attitude because what they believe is wholly true. It may be true; their attitude lends weight to the suggestion, but Mr. Winchester were he on the other side could not be deceived into thinking that it proves anything although he may wish us to believe that it does.
Because a radical sees as an error the poor best of the sincere but misguided Chamberlain, and our fainthearted Press preferred to be fainthearted one cannot jnfer that those of the same mind as Mr. Winchester were wholly right or even alone in their wisdom and even further infer that the Winches trains were right in everything. Many people thought Chamberlain wrong, including Mr. Churchill, who would surely be anti-Winchester.
If George Bernard Shaw on each of seven days published his view on some subject—Indonesia, for example, or Czech democracy—would they not ring round the world? But if he was later proved correct, would Mr. Winchester immediately and without further investigation declare the truth of vegetarianism? I think not.
This refusal to prove from essentials and by evidence, a legacy from that sort of education which leaves s man with nothing as a basis for thought, is a boon to radicals who can use propaganda methods not based on reason with little fear of contradiction. A critic must have a standard and thinkers principles to work from, but modem education firmly convinced of the omnipotence of not committing one's self leaves minds open to impression by the facile pens and persuasive tongues of the "progressives" who argue with emotion, inference and supreme evasive skill. Objections are rare. Attempts to pin down any orator of Garrett Street to the essentials of Marxian thought or practice were quickly brushed aside with the "down to earth let's talk about bread and butter routine". Progressives fear the spectre of essentials as much as they fear the rare man in the street who thinks.
Deeds do not prove anything but when carefully chosen and emotively presented they give a good impression which is sound politics in this way deeds which cannot be or are not related, and are not the results of the actions of the same forces, can be placed alongside each other and attributed to one force. Thus the spectre of the University red has a curious career which it is suggested is connected with every radical movement in the College. The inference is plain but the connection is not proved in spite of the fact that one of the movers in the radical clubs was later to be a prominent communist. Perhaps some of the Socialist Club's ancestry is traceable through the early radical clubs, but vocal radicals in pre-war years, even those who were against war are not necessarily an indication that Socialism was coming to greatness.
Politics, particularly those political schemes of the Socialists (Winchestrian and others) is in great part a matter of techniques. Providing the right techniques are used on the right people progress is made in a modem University a semblance of reasoned political theory presented with fiery idealism appeals to many of those who think at all. The technique is used to catch them with their enthusiasm getting no outlet, for thereafter there is so much to do in the cause of the party that there is no time to examine that semblance of political theory which was the original enticement nor is there time to examine other political theories which are continually abused within' the party in time the zealots convinced by their own techniques believe everything to be true, particularly since there is some truth in socialism and in communism and their socialism remains with them until its discomfit confirms them in their stubborn and bitter feud or disappears with an extra pound a week and a dress shirt.
A confirmed socialist sees everything as his socialism wishes him to see it and the result is an essay similar to that of Mr. Winchester's. The facts are all presented as though they tell the history of the spectre of the University Red when in fact they tell the history of the spectre of the University radical. New a radical is a very different person from a redical. Hilaire Belloc is a radical. He is not a socialist. The distinction is quite clear but not to the socialists, not even to those as well read as Mr. Winchester for they believe that the only radicals are socialists. It is true that there are a few who know that this is not a fact, that there are radicals in politics and economics who are not socialists but not only are they dismissed as wrong, they are ignored and refused attention. There are few ivory towers more impregnable than those of the socialists who are so firmly convinced of their righteousness that their zeal shames those others who have many things more valuable and realistic to say. Mr. Winchester is therefore able to write an essay in which radicalism and radicalism are mixed with only a sneaking suspicion that he is deceiving anybody, least of all himself. A curious but unenviable position.
Not that this essayist is unique in his refusal to view facts as facts and his method of argument; Writers in Salient, minor socialists in the People's Voice and journalists in newspapers use the method of argument by inference. It is only that the socialists use it most actively at a University where such arguments should be ineffective that is so surprising. Even this essay gives me more right to make a statement as dogmatic as Mr. Winchester's. It is not aimed to substantiate in every detail such a statement but advances some reasons which enable me to make it, and does not expect an illogical inference from a carefully selected collection of deeds salted with a great deal of emotion.
Socialism may grow and capture the imagination of the students. It will not do so because it is true.