Harold Walsby: Man’s Role in Social Change

In my last article I said, in effect, that in considering the future development of the socialist movement, one of the things we must take into account is the fact that social evolution is changing its character in a significant fashion. I stressed the fact that the nature of social development changes in proportion as human understanding grows and intrudes itself more and more as part of the actual mechanism of the evolutionary process.

This intrusion of consciousness into the course of evolution is not a peculiarity of social development. It is merely the latest stage, a new phase of an immensely long process which began with the evolution of life itself. The more that consciousness developed in animals, the more capable they became in adapting and adjusting their behaviour to immediate changes in their environment.

Mind and Material Conditions
The peculiarity of the human phase lies in the development and utilisation of consciousness in a new way. Several biological prerequisites were necessary for the final transition to this new stage. But once these prerequisites had been developed by mutation and natural selection, the arena was set and the pageant and drama of social evolution could begin. Men could now communicate their thoughts to one another. They could transmit, exchange and pool their experience. They could learn not only from direct experience, but also indirectly, from the experience of others. One generation could pass on its knowledge to the next. Men could now build up a social stock of knowledge, beliefs and emotional attitudes which could be added to, improved upon, and developed from generation to generation.

The symbolisation of ideas in the form of spoken sounds was thus of fundamental importance to the social evolution of man. It not only provided the external basis and non- biological means of communicating ideas – which was essential to the new method of evolution – but it enabled human beings to free their minds from bondage to their immediate surroundings. By means of the symbol, men were enabled to think of things which were not present to the senses. The presence of the symbol replaced the presence of the thing or event. Another important feature of the symbol was that, like the thing it represented, it was external to the mind.

This detachment of the human mind from the material conditions immediately and directly confronting it, was the first major step in the mental emancipation of man from the level of the brute. Since this beginning, the development of man’s intellect has continued to go hand in hand with an increasing detachment and freedom of his mind from his immediate material conditions.

In order for man’s understanding of these conditions to grow, he had to view them in an ever wider context – wider both in space and in time. This requires that man should “stand back”, as it were, become “more detached” from what is immediately present in space and time, and reflect on other places and other times.

At the outset of social evolution, the communication of ideas is extremely limited; language and speech are comparatively undeveloped. The cultural inheritance – the social accumulation and stock of ideas – which depends on the means of communication, is low and scanty. At this stage, therefore, the mental growth of each human being still has to rely very greatly on direct experience of material conditions.

With improvements in the means of communication (in the symbols, in language, speech, etc.) two things happen: firstly, the common stock of ideas and mental attitudes is more rapidly built up, and secondly, the actual mechanism of the cultural inheritance and interchange becomes more efficient. Human beings are able increasingly to develop their understanding on the basis of social tradition and the experience of others. The role of the material conditions in developing human intellect becomes more and more indirect.

Whereas at the primitive stage, human consciousness feeds primarily on direct experience of the material conditions, at later stages, with the improvements in idea- communication, it feeds more and more on ideas, on the common cultural stock. Each human being born into the community, recapitulates this development of consciousness, from the crude stage of direct dependence upon environment, to later stages where he depends more and more on the cultural stock and social interchange of ideas.

“Freedom” said Engels, quoting Hegel, “is the knowledge of necessity.” We can now put it another way: The more developed man’s consciousness and the greater his knowledge and understanding, then the freer and more independent he is of the influence of his immediate environment – and the more able he is to determine and change his environment. Conversely, the less developed his consciousness and understanding, the more is he determined and held in bondage by his environmental conditions. We can express this relationship, between the degree of consciousness and the direct influence of material environment, as one of inverse proportionality, and we can represent it mathematically as

cm = k

where c is the degree of consciousness or understanding, m is the degree of direct influence of material conditions, and k is a constant.

Acceleration of Evolution
Now, the role of consciousness is not only differential in time (becoming more determining as it develops) but it is also differential in its social distribution at any given time. The latter differentiation is, to a great extent, a consequence of the former. Let us see how this comes about.

In the previous article I mentioned that, in general, there is a speeding-up of the evolutionary process as it advances; and that, in particular, the later stages of social development exhibit more rapid growth than its earlier stages. This was largely due, I stressed, to the increasing development and intrusion of consciousness into the evolutionary process, and the consequent increase in the rate at which consciousness achieves control of its environment.

This means, then, that the acceleration of social evolution is dependent largely on the accelerating development of human consciousness – on the fact that the more man’s understanding develops, the more independently and, therefore, the more quickly it develops. “Nothing succeeds like success” is the principle of social growth.

A little reflection about this fact will enable one to see that it leaves its mark on the actual structure of society. In the early stages of human society the material conditions – upon which men were more directly dependent – naturally varied for different social groups, and this variation tended to produce disuniformity and variation in social development. But once a community or group got ahead, the faster it tended to develop, because of the increasing role of consciousness in the process of evolutionary growth.

The same sort of thing occurred with the development of the individuals within each community. The result was the tendency to hierarchic structure within each social grouping.

What bearing have these matters upon social and political changes of our own time and in the future?

The Minority Movement
We have already noted that the most politically conscious elements in the community are very much in a minority. The movement of convinced socialists is very much a minority movement.

This minority has been deeply influenced, through the cultural inheritance and social stock of knowledge, by a much wider social context (both in space and time) than is the case with the majority. The socialist sees his immediate environment (which he experiences directly) against the background and in terms of this wider “environment” (which he experiences only indirectly). The mass of workers do not.

The socialist, in other words, is influenced much more by general ideas – i.e. by material conditions he experiences only symbolically – and is relatively less influenced by his actually experienced material conditions. On the other hand, the social and political behaviour of the vast majority of people is determined much more by what takes place within the immediate circle of their environment. They are, in short, more “parochial” in outlook.

This throws some light on the fact that the majority do not see their immediate problems in terms of very general and abstract conceptions – and why they do not respond to explanations of their problems couched in these terms. A “social system” to them is something remote and unreal. General concepts, like “capitalism,” “socialism,” “means of production,” and so forth, seem to have no bearing on what they consider to be concrete and important realities. “Internationalism” is something foreigni alien and distant. “Fundamental social change” is no more than an ugly phrase. It is a language – a way of thinking – that the majority simply don’t understand. Indeed, they have no desire to understand; for such language tends to repel them just because it is unfamiliar and alien to their own way of thinking.

Their own way of thought is bound up with immediate things: with their hearth and home, with their family and neighbours, with their work and recreation, with their own street and district, with “getting on” in their world and, moreover, with preserving this way of life and thought. The social background to these concrete realities tends to be vague, nebulous and, therefore, unimportant. This is the mass ideology, and the pursuit of these interests is the pursuit of ideological interests as distinct from economic interests.

An important aspect of the matter, from our point of view, is that this outlook is not confined to the poor, it is not confined to the workers. It is an outlook on life which is common to the majority, poor and rich alike, to workers and employers, to producers and owners. It is largely independent of class interests and economic position.

So long as class interests do not seriously interfere with the pursuit of these ideological interests, then it is extremely difficult, or impossible, to arouse enthusiasm in the majority for fundamental changes in the general social order. When, however, this interference does occur – as it has occurred many times in history, and is happening now in Asia – then huge numbers of people are readily mobilised to support radical social changes.

Thus, to gain mass support (of a low order of understanding) for a revolutionary change, the material conditions of life for the vast majority must become so bad as to interfere seriously with their basic ideological interests. Their living conditions must become intolerable.

Where this pressure from the material conditions does not exist, then mass support is obtainable only by increasing mass understanding, that is, by altering the ideology of people on a mass scale – an alteration which, it seems, can only take place over a very long period of development.

Three Variables
We have here, then, the three variables mentioned in my previous article. We can now express the way they vary with the help of the following equation:

cm = s

where, for any revolutionary social change, c is the degree of consciousness or mass understanding, in is the degree of pressure of material conditions and s is the degree of numerical support for the change. When c and m are both small – as, for example, at present with the people of Britain, in regard to socialism – then c is also small. When either c or m are large – as, for instance, m is large in relation to state capitalism in many backward countries to-day – then s is relatively high.

Equivalent forms of the same equation may be derived in the usual way and written:

c = s / c and m = s / m

It will be seen that: (i) as in the first equation (containing the constant) c and m vary in inverse proportion to one another when s is constant; c varies in direct proportion with s when m is constant; (iii) m varies in direct proportion with s when c is constant.

The equation can also be illuminating when applied to different social groups within the community. For instance, for a political party which stands purely for socialism (as distinct from state capitalism) the understanding c, the pressure of material conditions m, and the support for socialism s, will all be of the highest degree. The same equations, when applied to the community, will of course show such a party to be very small.

Within the Labour Party, on the other hand, the degree of understanding in relation to socialism will be much lower; so, too, will the pressure of material conditions. The support for socialism within the Labour Party will, therefore, be correspondingly lower. In relation to state capitalism, however, both understanding and pressure of material conditions are relatively greater; so, also, is the support for state capitalism.

Hang In There Baby

from Ideological Commentary 37, January 1989.