Harold Walsby: Colour Systems and Social Systems

Here we continue our series of reprints of Walsby’s articles from the Socialist Leader, begun in IC27, with copy supplied by Ellis Hillman. This is from the issue of 29 April 1950; it completes the article “Dogmatic Nonsense” which appeared on 15 April 1950, reprinted in IC30. – GW

Further to my previous letter, we now come to the only part of the “Reply” of “Philoren” which attempts to deal with my main charge. This charge is, namely, that despite their lip-service to dialectic (i.e. the science of the UNIVERSAL – repeat, UNIVERSAL – laws of motion and change) the S.P.G.B. fail to apply these laws in their actual analysis of capitalism and its relation to socialism, and instead, retain the old static, or as I have called it, “black-or-white” mode of thought. This static view assumes – naively, unconsciously – that a thing and its negation, positive and negative, things and their opposites, absolutely exclude each other, that they remain “poles apart” and never interpenetrate, coalesce and become partly or wholly one another.

Such a static view of things is good enough e.g. for most of the narrow requirements of simple everyday living and for some of the simpler aspects of science, but it fails when applied e.g., to the details of complex changes or to broad evolutionary changes over relatively long periods of time. Hence all the numerous absurdities into which the SPGB position lands itself on the question of social change.

“Philoren” brushes aside this charge of thinking in terms of fixed, static polar opposites (and they unwittingly provide us with a most remarkable confirmation of it) thus: “But what can we make of Mr. Walsby’s over-indulgence in ‘black and white’ … (note the misquote) “he confuses colour systems with social systems. In any case, ‘black’ does not change into ‘white’ any more than an orange changes into an apple. There is no parallel, no useful analogy here. The subject matter of our letter was the change from capitalism to socialism, not black to white, and we do not intend Mr. Walsby to sidetrack the issue by shifting to different and irrelevant ground by means of a false analogy” (my stress). You see? “‘Black’ does not change into ‘white’ any more than an orange changes into an apple.” What sort of a universe do these people live in, for Pete’s sake – where objects which are black never change to white and vice versa? This rubbish is no more than a hoary old rehash of Plato’s theory of immutable Ideas, in which “black,” “white,” “squareness,” “justice,” etc., are eternally changeless static “Forms” constituting an unchanging “reality” beyond the world of the senses. Nature, modern technology and science will, between them, furnish these dunderheads with hundreds of examples of “black” changing into “white” – that is, of course, if only they are prepared to believe the evidence of their senses as at all relevant.

Their infantile comparison with oranges and apples sets the seal on their genuine and profound ignorance of the dialectical nature of change. Oranges do not change into apples because they are not (as are “black” and “white”) dialectically related as such; that is, they are not two relative, antithetical phases united in one continuous process of change. Messrs. Philoren & Co., are obviously quite unaware that whereas there is no dialectical opposition and interpenetration of oranges and apples, there is such a relationship between black and white. (At least, there is in the changing objective world most of us live in, if not in the static, ideal world of the “Philoren”-cum-Platonic-cum-SPGB brew!) Although oranges do not change into apples, both oranges and apples (of this world) in fact do change into their respective negations – and moreover, like everything else of this world (social systems as well!) they do so in accordance with the UNIVERSAL laws of change, including the laws of “the unity and interpenetration of opposites.” No wonder these dialectical chumps see “no parallel, no useful analogy here” while at the same time applauding “Walt Disney cartoons… ‘comic pantomime’ … or even Comic Cuts… by such or similar means can socialism be most effectively introduced!”

Next point: “Because,” say our worthies, “all great social changes in the past have been slow and gradual, he (Walsby) would have us reason therefore all such changes in the future must be so.” Does he? He does not! You’d better read my letter again, Messrs. “Philoren.” They sum up this stupid distortion thus: “… In other words, he thinks that because some are, therefore all must be.” This grotesque attempt to rephrase my argument in their own words plainly shows they have actually set about trying to deal with it without even grasping the point under discussion!

“Slowness” and “gradualness” are relative terms. One transition is “slow” relative to another. Relative to yet another the same transition is “rapid.” In In this sense, there is a general tendency for social transition to increase its tempo. But relatively slow or relatively fast, transition is never eliminated – it always occurs. The SPGB, with their “black- or-white” thinking, create a fixed, rigid, polar opposition between the basic change and the superficial change of capitalism, oblivious of the fact that these two types of change are “geared together” and interpenetrate. “Despite all its changes,” they say, “capitalism hasn’t changed fundamentally,” “The more capitalism changes the more it is the same thing,” etc. This monstrous misrepresentation leads to the further poppy-cock that capitalism and socialism – two relative, antithetical stages of social development – do not basically interpenetrate (i.e. that there is no unity and interpenetration of the antitheses “private ownership” – “common ownership” and, therefore, that there is no period of basic transition from capitalism to socialism. They talk of the “fundamental change” from capitalism to socialism, but deny this change its fundamental, basic character (its dialectical nature).

If Messrs. “Philoren” can’t extract the syllogistic form of my argument, I’ll do it for them: Major Premise: The change from capitalism to socialism is a fundamental social change. Minor Premise: The fund- amental laws of all change (the laws of “interpenetration of opposites”, “change of quantity into quality and vice versa“, “negation of negation”) apply to all fundamental social changes. Conclusion: Therefore the fundamental laws of all change (the laws of interpenetration of opposites, etc.) apply to the change from capitalism to socialism. This, say “Philoren”, argues “that because some are, therefore all must be!” What maundering drivel! But how typical of their whole Duhringian tribe.

– – –

The undying refrain of the humanists and atheists, socialists, communists and anarchists, reformers and revolutionaries, in short of the intellectuals, is that their opponents are irrational. If only everybody would hold to the strict canons of logic, or at least strive to avoid self-contradiction, inconsistency and partiality, we would all come into substantial agreement. But the distribution of conformity and dissension suggests otherwise. It tends to be the traditionalists and authoritarians, those who value proven viability above logical consistency, practice above theory, who enjoy mental unanimity; the rationalists are constantly at intellectual war among themselves, each repudiating the thinking of the others.

Authority was with us before the demand for liberty, and practice before any developed theory; the indications are that in our intellectual relationships we start from a condition of conformity and depart increasingly far from it as our reasoning powers develop.

from Ideological Commentary 31, January 1988.