Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 25, No. 1. 1962.
Socialism and Culture
Socialism and Culture
Is the development of culture more restricted under a Socialist system or under Capitalism? This problem is causing great conflict amongst followers of the New Left, Fabian Society members, and various intellectuals. Although this aspect of Socialism is not regarded by some as important as the economic, moral or the political issues of left-of-centre theorizing, to my mind it warrants closer attention.
With some sense of foreboding I put the question to the "Common-room crowd," and later to some other students around Vic Their views ranged from the rational to the irrational, from traditional bias to fashionable ignorance. Far too often, though, the "No views on the subject whatsoever" attitude prevailed. Typical of the views expressed were: Culture is independent of politics; A Socialist state ruins the independence of the individual; more leisure time under Capitalism; under Capitalism the writer has to prostitute his work in order to live; Russia has full-time poets; culture thrives best without regimentation; and others similar. A certain young lady, well-known for her pro-catholic orations, said she felt sorry for Russia because "You couldn't have 'beats' there." Evirently, to her, the 'beat' writers are the avant garde of to-day's literature.
Sir Thomas More.
One of the earliest Socialists to consider this problem was Sir Thomas More, who wrote his "Utopia" in two books in 1515. Written in Latin originally, it was definitely revolutionary doctrine but was obviously not for Every-man. In More's Utopia, hours of work are restricted to six, three hours before dinner and three hours after. The theory here was that long working hours were a direct result from the large number of idlers which society carries, but if everyone did their fair share work could be distrbuted more evenly, thus shorter hours for all. And any leisure must be devoted "to some proper exercise," preferably a cultural activity. Essentially a Socialistic island, with no private property, More's Utopians are also way-out fore-runners of Bentham, believing in pleasure only, "using this caution, that a lesser pleasure might not stand in the way of a greater, and that no pleasure ought to be pursued that should draw a great deal of pain after it."
Yet the point Alexander Gray makes in his "The Socalist Tradition" is that in spite of the material comforts, reduced working hours and food-for-everyone advantages of a Utopia, life there would be as boring as in a conventional Heaven, where nothing has happened since the revolt of the angels. He maintains that life in any Utopia would have reached a static state, perfection, by definition, has been attained, and there is nothing left to strive for. Although More's book was only an exercise in fantasy, I do not think
Gray is sufficiently justified in his indictment on the "nothing happening" grounds. A world free of war, revolt, poverty, hunger, disease and crime would remove many events from the earth but these would only be the undesirable ones. Culture could never be static, and every change, however gradual, would be an advance, and therefore a happening.
This inevitability of change was advanced by Hegel and Fichte.
"History," said Hegel, "is a continuous process. Each and every society is but a landmark on the endless pilgrimage of humanity from lower to higher states of life." These ideas were expanded by Hegel's contemporaries to involve politics, religion, morals, culture and even aesthetics. But Hegel's dialectical philosophy which stated that all change is the result of conflict between diametrically opposed forces, took place primarly on the plane of ideas, while Marx, Engels and their followers applied the principle rather dogmatically to the class struggle in human society.
Capitalist Society "Ugly"
William Morris and John Ruskin, both of whom attacked Capitalism for introducing machinery at the expense of the individual's sense of craftsmanship and beauty, were two of the last Socialists to fight in vain against the Industrial Revolution from the idealist's point of view. Morris, who was both artist and poet, turned to Socialism because of a disliking of ugliness and squalor of an industrial Capitalist society. In his time, art and culture generally were only available for the wealthy. "News from Nowhere," written in 1891, is his Utopian vision of a socialist England.
T. S. Eliot.
One of the most recent detailed works on the subject is a pamphlet published by the Fabian Society four months ago, by Richard Wollheim, a Reader in Philosophy at University College. London. Wollheim points out that we live in a compromise between middleclass culture and mass-culture. Middle-class culture is humane but exclusive and mass-culture is killed by commercialism. The great proponent of the case for middle-class culture has been T. S. Eliot, who once said: "It is an essential condition of the preservation of the quality of the culture of the minority that it should continue to be a minority culture." Unfortunately, this extreme snobbery is not an isolated case but is typical of reactionary thought. Wollheim goes on to condemn mass-culture. (This term refers to such things as television, radio, films, cheap paper-backs, comics, etc.) He argues that mass-culture is essentially a passive or spectator culture, which is another way of saying that it is of poor aesthetic quality, and also, it is bound up with the consumption and display of goods—T.V. Sets, clothes, magazines, records, cars, films. Wollheim's desire is for an integrated society, which would be unified by a common culture, common interests, common activities and common "meanings." This vision of an integrated society, a recurrent theme in the political speculation of the last hundred and fifty years, has a close connection with some of the traditional ideals and aspirations of Socialism. For in the new society (or the old society revived, as Wollheim wishes) commercialism will exist no more, work will be humanized and reacquire significance, and the exploitation of Nature by Man will supersede the old exploitation of Man by Man. The main defect in Wollheim's pamphlet is his notion that one could, or should, revive the old working class-culture. This integrated society is often identified with a rural or pastoral society, but. as Freud points out, there is a great nostalgia for a return to the earth, and it is just a romantic, poetic expression of the emotional frustrations generated by "civilised" sexual morality.
The main arguments supporting the Capitalist's point of view are usually, I have found, the ones that are anti-socialism. The most common one is that the nationalization of intellectual life, which must be attempted under Socialism, must make all intellectual progress impossible. This has been presented by Ludwig Von Mises in his "Socialism." He says that under Capitalism the artist and the scientist have many alternatives open to them. If they are rich they can follow their own inclinations; they can seek out patrons; they can attempt to live on the sale of their creative work. Each of these has its dangers, though. Nowadays, patrons are not as abundant as in, say, the 18th and 19th century; and how many creative artists can live on their creative work alone? And how many genii are born rich? If Von Mises had considered these sides of it, he would have come closer to presenting a well-balanced case. His generalisation at the end of the chapter titled "Art, Literature, Science and Journalism" which reads "No censor, emperor or pope has ever possessed the power to suppress intellectual freedom which would be possessed by a Socialistic community," is altogether too blatant to be taken seriously, just as it is equally unjust to say that all Catholics worship in a state of fear or that all Jews are detestable misers. But this view is accepted by many people, just as the other two irresponsible generalisations I mentioned are also held by many.
Summing up, I would say it appears that if the creative spirit innovates necessarily, it must press forward, destroying the old and setting the new in its place. As Von Mises says, if it were relieved of this burden it would cease to be a pioneer. Cultural advance, then, would be more assured, under Capitalism rather than Socialism, but this by no means says that the status quo is as good as it could be nor that a Socialist state with a few intelligent modifications could not conceivably offer far more to the artist, and thus, in time, to Culture generally.