Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!


Lost in the Region of Phrases

Auberon Herbert defends individualism against the collectivist ideas that man exists only as part of the group and that “society” has its own wants and needs.

I owe many apologies both to the editor and to Mr. Hobson for the long delay which has taken place as regards this discussion. I can only hope they may both be willing to forgive me. And now to our business in hand. I tried in my last paper to show that while Mr. Hobson had written with much literary skill an interesting paper about socialism, he had left the great fortress untaken, even unbesieged, which stands in the way of the advance of socialism. He made a delightful excursus into the region of metaphor and literary imagination, but he never troubled himself to convince us that force was a weapon which the larger number are morally justified in using against the smaller number, or that, when used, is likely to produce the happiness which we all desire. But if Mr. Hobson did not raise this all-important question, but passed it by, as skillful leaders sometimes pass by strong positions, which threaten heavy loss for those who attack them, he tried to open out a new road toward his end with no little literary ingenuity. By the way of metaphor and abstract conception he sought to steal our senses from us, inspiring us with the socialistic temperament, and leading us along pleasant and flowery paths toward that new form of Catholic church, in which he invites us to find our rest. Some of his readers probably felt much the same influence gently stealing over them as they have felt in listening to some of the great Jesuit teachers. In both cases the real issues are passed by, and side issues, sentimentally and artistically tricked out, are skillfully put in their place. It is only natural it should be so. Our socialist friends and the Jesuits plead for their own causes in much the same spirit. They both believe absolutely in great external organizations; they each put their own external organization above and before everything else; conscience, judgment, and will are, on a fixed system, bent and bowed before it; and reason and individual judgment, who always demand to stand at the gate with erect head, become to both of them as the voice of the Evil One moving man to his ruin. If I remember rightly, even Luther spoke of reason as “the harlot”—I presume because reason requires that every claim put forward by authority should first pass before its own tribunal.

Now let us examine Mr. Hobson’s apology for socialism, and see how far it carries us. I think I am right in describing his paper as an attempt to reduce the individual to nothingness, and on the ruins of the individual to exalt and glorify “the social organism.” The individual deserves no thought or consideration at our hands; he is the product of the social entity; all that he is and all that he has are borrowed from the social entity; not only his material possessions, but his very qualities and thoughts—just as a flower, we might say, contributes nothing of its own, but borrows all its beauty and fragrance from the air and the soil on which it feeds. To which little parable—which I freely offer to Mr. Hobson for his acceptance and use—I must, however, attach the individualist’s comment—that it is the skillful chemistry of which the flower is master that turns these contributions of a lower order to its own profit; and that it is just on account of this marvelous vital power that the flower is far higher in rank than the elements which it transmutes into color and fragrance.

Now let me ask, is there any solid reality in this view of the social entity, or must we treat it as a mere literary creation? When we oppose the social entity to the individual, are we not tricking ourselves with words; are we not simply opposing some individuals to other individuals? If the individual is molded and formed by the social entity, it can only mean that he is molded and formed by other individuals. If John Smith’s thoughts are formed for him, it is as the result of what other John Smiths have spoken or written. If you like to christen all these other John Smiths by the rather fine name of “social entity,” there is no great objection, perhaps, provided only you keep the simple truth in view that it is the individuals who act on each other; and (setting aside the action of the forces of nature and the existence of higher beings than man) that in no conceivable way can we think of influence as passing except from individuals to individuals. So also with our material debt to each other. If in an expanding community A. X. grows rich, because, as a doctor, he has more patients to look after, or as a tradesman, because he has more customers to serve, or as a landowner, because he has more persons to whom to sell his land, it is in every such case the result of the actions of some definite individuals affecting other definite individuals. If the individuals who come to reside in a place increase the prosperity of (a) the lawyer, (b) the doctor, (c) the tradesman, and (d) the landowner, so in return do these four persons increase the prosperity of those for whose wants they provide in their different ways. It is the exchange of services and useful commodities by which each benefits the other, and each in turn is benefited. The increase of prosperity simply results from the interaction of the individuals amongst themselves. It seems cruel to break butterflies on logical wheels and to deal harshly with Mr. Hobson’s poetical creation, but outside and beyond this action of the individuals there is no place left of any kind for the action of the social entity. Like so many other things of imposing pretensions, it fades into nothingness at the touch of simple analysis. Again, even if Mr. Hobson could make good the existence of his social entity, as distinct from the action of individuals, would he be any nearer the object that he has in view—the investment of the social entity with supreme importance, and the reduction of the individual to insignificance? If the social entity—supposing that such a thing existed apart from the individuals—acts upon the individual, so beyond dispute must the individual in his turn, as regards the work that he does and the thoughts that he thinks, act upon the social entity. What therefore might be claimed for the one must also be claimed for the other. The two factors, being placed in opposition to each other, would then simply cancel each other—would “go out,” as schoolboys say about opposed factors in a sum of arithmetic. What then is left of the supremacy of the one, and the insignificance of the other? The truth is that the contrast that it is attempted to draw between the individual and the social entity is a wholly unreal one. You might as usefully contrast pence and pounds. The social entity really means: some individuals; nothing less and nothing more.

And here it may be useful to follow Mr. Hobson a little further in his adventurous attempt to get rid of the individual. Many things have been dared and attempted by philosophers in their day; but the elimination of the individual out of the social system is an undertaking that throws into the shade most other philosophical exploits. Mr. Hobson writes: “The modern man, at any rate, is a highly social product; his thoughts, feelings, the skill with which he works, the tools he employs, all essential to his effective labor, are made by society.” Again: “The so-called individual mind is distinctly a social product, made, maintained, and constantly influenced by other minds.” “Other minds,” I think, must be a slip of the pen, for that is simply to make the plain and matter-of-fact statement that individuals influence each other. Mr. Hobson should have written “influenced by the social entity.” Again he writes: “… the conception of a society which is not the mere addition of its individual members, but an organic system of the relations between individuals.” So, we poor mortals are evidently greater than we know. John Smith, like most of us addicted to the prose of everyday life, has probably looked on himself hitherto as an individual, possessing a distinct separate body and mind of his own, not in any way to be confused with the body and mind of his neighbor Thomas Robinson. At the same time John Smith is quite aware that he shares, in common with Thomas Robinson and his other neighbors, a certain number of thoughts, feelings, and interests; he knows that he agrees with them on some points, while he disagrees with them on other points. But no amount of such agreement has hitherto affected John Smith’s conviction that his individuality is one thing, and the individuality of Thomas Robinson is another thing. At last, however, better days are coming for good John Smith. The new knowledge and the new gospel have abolished his old status. Henceforth he is invited to exchange his prose for poetry, and to look upon himself, not as an individual, but as part of the social entity, as a something included in “an organic system of the relations between individuals.” It sounds grand, even if it is a little difficult to understand. Let us piously hope that John Smith will not only understand, but will also profit by his newly acquired dignity, if not mentally or morally, at least by finding more bread and cheese in his cupboard.

Then Mr. Hobson illustrates his idea of the individual who is lost in the crowd (I am afraid that this is a very homely presentment of the fact, which Mr. Hobson himself would express by speaking of a man’s inclusion in the “organic system of the relations between individuals”) by appealing to the state of a nation at war. “Can a national enthusiasm for war,” he asks, “be resolved into the desire of individual American citizens to fight individual Spaniards, or vice versa?” Even a crowd, “the simplest form of social organism,” is something more than a large-scale copy “of the feelings and conduct of its constituent parts.” Now, how much of this will bear analysis? Is it not all conceived in the dangerous region of metaphor and abstraction, and, I must add, of exaggeration? If a crowd, a town, a nation, is not in each case a collection of individuals—more or less acted upon, it is true, by certain common feelings, more or less possessing certain common interests—what can it be? That when you bring men together for any purpose, either for the purpose of listening to speeches or for some common undertaking, such men act upon each other in a very marked manner, both for good and for evil, sometimes heightening the good that is in their nature, and sometimes heightening the evil, is what we all daily know and experience; but I cannot see how this heightening of emotion can in any way affect the fact that those who thus influence and are influenced are individuals, each with his own set of feelings, each with his own separate body and mind, and each with his own responsibility (to which Mr. Hobson must very much object) for what he does with that mind and body. Because John Smith and Richard Parker are under the influence of the same class of feelings, or are engaged in seeking the same ends, that does not in any way get rid of the individuals John Smith and Richard Parker, or put in their place a new sort of being made up half of Smith and half of Parker, or—to state the case of the social entity even more exactly—made up of some twenty or thirty millions of Smiths and Parkers. But why should we create this monster, simply because men under certain states of feeling act powerfully on each other? A man, I presume, still remains a man, and a woman a woman, even when their feelings are so heightened by the words and actions of others, that they are, as a consequence, more ready to die for each other, or to cut each others’ throats—as the case may be. There at the bottom of it all—whether it is a crowd shouting for war, a political party rejoicing over an election victory, a body of schoolboys triumphant over the victory of their eleven or their eight, a professional body clamoring for some professional interest, a clerical meeting denouncing some heresy, a socialist congress rejoicing in the onward march of universal coercion, a trades unionist body denouncing nonunionists, or a gathering of capitalists drawing tighter the bonds of their organization—there in every case are the individuals sharing in some common aim, and therefore sharing in the same feelings—the John Smiths and the Thomas Robinsons, exciting both themselves and their fellows by the old love of strife, or the old craving for utopia, and borrowing what is both good and bad—sometimes ugly passions, and sometimes splendid devotion, from each other.

This, then, is the first point to notice—that no literary phrases about social organisms are potent enough to evaporate the individual. He is the prime, the indispensable, the irreducible element in the whole business. The individual has a far too solid and matter-of-fact existence to be eliminated by any arts of literary conjuring. Now take the second point. Is there a resemblance, on the one side, between the individual and certain social wholes, in which he is included, and on the other side, between an organism and its component parts? The answer must be: yes. All parts included in wholes have a generic likeness to each other of a certain kind. A brick in a house, a muscle in a body, have each of them relations to their own whole (the house and the body) which may be compared to the relations existing between an individual and the various social bodies in which he is included. But if there is a certain resemblance, there are also striking differences. The life of the muscle exists simply for the sake of the organism. Taken out of the organism it dies, and has no further use. So with a brick. Like the muscle, it does not exist (excluding, perhaps, the case of a certain town in the Midlands on election days in the old times) for its own sake. It has no use or purpose apart from the building in which it is to form part. It is not an end in itself. In these cases the organism is greater than the part; but with the individual it is not so. He is included in many wholes—his school, his college, his club, his profession, his town or county, his church, his political party, his nation; he forms part of many organisms, but he is always greater than them all. They exist for him; not he for them. The child does not exist for his family, the boy does not exist for his school, the undergraduate for his college, the member of a church or club, or trades union, or cooperative society, or joint-stock company, for his church, club, society, trades union, cooperative society, or joint-stock company, the member of a village or town does not exist for his village or town, or the member of a nation for his nation. All these various wholes, without any exception, in which an individual is included—these so-called organisms of which he forms part—exist for the sake of the individual. They exist to do his service; they exist for his profit and use. If they did not minister to his use, if they did not profit him, they would have no plea to exist. The doom of any one of them would be spoken, if it were found to injure, not to benefit, the individual. He, the individual, joins himself to them for the sake of the good they bring him, not in order that he may be used by them, and be lost to himself, as the brick is lost in the house, or the muscle in the organism. The individual is king, and all these other things exist for the service of the king. It is a mere superstition to worship any institution, as an institution, and not to judge it by its effects upon the character and the interests of men. It is here that socialist and Catholic make the same grand mistake. They exalt the organization, which is in truth as mere dust under our feet; they debase the man, for whose sake the organization and all other earthly things exist. They posit a priori the claims of the external organization as supreme and transcending all profit and loss account, and they call upon men to sacrifice a large part of their higher nature for the sake of this organization. They both of them sacrifice man, the king, to the mere dead instrument that exists for man’s service. But why is a man to be sacrificed to any organization? How can any organization stand in front of, stand higher than, man? Test the matter by mere common sense. Could we go to a man and say: “You will be so much worse off materially, mentally, morally, by joining such and such an association, but for the sake of the association itself I entreat you to join it.” Does not every person, who pleads for an association, take pains to show that in some way, materially or morally, the individual will be profited by joining it; and in so speaking he bears evidence to the simple truth that the association—whatever it be, church, nation, or penny club—exists for the individual, and not the individual for the association.

There is another striking example of this tendency to put phrases in the place of realities in Mr. Hobson’s paper. We all of us depend, says Mr. Hobson, upon services rendered by and to each other; we are all of us influenced by the thoughts and actions of each other; therefore—so the argument seems to run—we can have no individuality of our own, we can have no private possession of our own faculties (still less, of course, of the property won by faculties); no rights over ourselves; being parts of the social whole, and not in reality separate individuals, we cannot own ourselves, we can only be possessed in common; we can only share in owning all our fellow-men, while at the same time we ourselves are owned by our fellow-men. Humanity, in the socialist view, cannot be divided up into such valueless and insignificant fractions, as individuals; it must be treated in a more dignified manner—wholesale, in the lump.

Now let us put these curious abstractions into more concrete form. My baker and I everyday exchange services. He leaves me so many loaves, and I put into his hand so many bits of money. We are both of us quite content with this arrangement; but because I depend (in part) upon his bread, and he depends (in part) upon my shillings, given in payment, therefore for the sake of this common dependence we are both to be bound up together, whether we wish it or not, in Mr. Hobson’s universal compulsory organization. How little, during our simple and innocent transactions, did either of us realize the yoke, which we were silently and unconsciously forging for our own necks and for the necks of the rest of the world. Because quite voluntarily and for our mutual convenience one of us bought, and the other sold, therefore henceforward all our relations are to be regulated by an all-embracing compulsion. That may be literature, but it is not logic, and it is not reason. The syllogism, I presume, would run: We all depend upon the exchange of voluntary and mutually convenient services, arranged according to our own individual likings and requirements; therefore we are to be placed, as regards our material wants, under the system of universal compulsion, which has been amiably devised for us by Mr. Hobson’s friends in their spare moments of abstract contemplation, and which may not in any way correspond to our own individual likings and requirements. Take, now, the case of the intellectual services which men perform for each other. I read the writings of certain authors and am influenced by them; and perhaps in my own turn try to influence others; therefore, as a penal consequence of this intellectual influence I am to be placed under a universal compulsory system which is to undertake the regulation of my mind, and of all other minds. This syllogism again, I presume, would run: We all influence each other by our words and our writings; therefore we are all to be yoked together under a system of intellectual compulsion, chosen for us by others. Literature apart, I think Mr. Hobson will admit that it is a bold transmutation of unlike things unto each other—voluntary service and the free exchange of influence, passing into the universal compulsion of each other, worked by the votes of a majority. If he has not as yet hit upon the alchemist’s stone, he has at all events discovered the secret, that lies at the opposite pole, of degrading gold into lead.

In all the annals of reasoning—and they are many and strange—was there ever such a perverse method followed of reaching a conclusion? And to what is it due? It is all due to the fact that the socialist is under the unhappy destiny of having to plead for an impossible creed—a creed founded on Old World reactionary and superstitious ideas, that are only waiting half-alive to be decently buried forever by the race that has suffered so much and so long for them. The socialist, as an individual, is often infinitely better than his creed of power worship. You can’t read the papers of Mr. Hobson or of some other socialistic writers without feeling that generous impulses and desires, and in a certain sense large ideas, run through them; but unfortunately all these generous impulses and large ideas turn, like fairy gold, to dust and ashes, because they are wedded to compulsion, which degrades all that it touches. What can be pettier, narrower, more reactionary, more superstitious and irrational, than the worship by the socialist of majority rule—the crowning of every three men, because they are three, and the moral and material effacement of every two men, because they are two; or the building up of a gigantic fabric of unlimited power, with the arbitrary suspension and limitation of the faculties of the individual in every direction? What moral or intellectual redemption can possibly be found for such a system? It would be as narrow and stifling as a prison cell; as full of trick and intrigue as the inner council chamber of the College of the Jesuits; as timorous and despairing as the creed of the ascetics, who pronounced the world to be evil and the cloister to be the only safe place in it; as brutal as the politics of a Napoleon or a Bismarck. Is there any reason, then, to wonder that men, with the literary tact and ability of Mr. Hobson, seek, almost unconsciously to themselves, to cover up the dead bones of their system with metaphor and abstract conception, and to ask us to admire the something of their literary manufacture, which has as little to do with the real thing, as hothouse flowers have to do with the poor decomposing remains that lie inside the coffin on which the flowers are flung. The highest art in the world cannot gild socialism. It is impossible to make beautiful the denial of liberty. To slightly alter a famous saying—socialism is the negation of all personal rights, erected into a system; and literature, even in the hands of a master, is powerless to make us look with anything but scorn on that negation. The bones and the bare skull grin through all the false decorations that you hang about them, making them only more the ghastly, the more skill you expend in trying to adorn them. I would suggest to Mr. Hobson whether it would not have been truer art to have left on one side the plaster and stucco work of literature, and to have simply said: “Our creed is a brutal and stupid one—all compulsion is brutal and stupid—but the world is an evil one, and its evils must be pounded with cudgel and club, just in such fashion as we can most easily get at them.”

And here, in conclusion, I am tempted to say a rather unkind thing. Is not our friend the socialist the very one special person in the world who is unfit to preach the doctrine of his social entity? Granting its existence—where is the social entity to be found? Our answer must be that it can only be found in the whole mass of individuals—in the whole nation, with all its many differences, freely allowed to find their own expression; and not in that mock imitation of the nation, a majority worked by the politician’s machinery. There is, as I believe, a something which we may rightly call the social entity, but Mr. Hobson and his friends skillfully contrive to turn a blind eye in its direction, to pass it by on one side, and thus conveniently to miss it altogether. They do not see that it is vain to look for it in any faction or part of a nation overriding other factions or parts of a nation; that it is vain to look for it in a handful of men sitting in a council chamber and fondly imagining themselves to be the nation; that it has nothing to do with laws and regulations, and the effacement of the individual by a system of huge and complicated state machinery; but that it can only be found where all bodies and minds are free, and each individual gives his contribution of bodily or mental labor voluntarily, after his own kind and his own fashion. Clearly the social entity must embrace the whole, no part excluded; otherwise the very idea of unity—of organic oneness—at once disappears. Freedom is the only one thing that offers a possibility of such unity, because under freedom no man can place another man in subjection to his views, and because unrestrained difference offers the nearest and truest approach to true unity which this world allows. The unity of unrestrained difference is a far truer unity than the unity of compulsory sameness. Let us take a simple example. Suppose a country, where education is free, in the true sense, free from all possibility of government compulsion and authoritative direction. Then, in every effort and every experiment made, in every joining together for practical purposes of those who are in sympathy with each other, in every formation of cooperating groups, in every discussion of the truer meanings of education, in every meeting called, in every book or letter written, you have the real expression of the social entity. Whatever force of conviction, whatever practical energy there is anywhere in the great mass of individuals, these find their outlet and their own method of working, and represent the social entity for exactly what it is in its reality. The social entity must be represented by free contributions of mental and bodily labor, for only in such a way is it possible for every individual, without exception, to take part in the expression of the common life and work. It cannot be represented where there is an effacement of minorities by majorities, where there is a cooked-up thing, called representation, which simply means the utterly false and artificial merging of thousands of persons into one person, and where one faction imposes its will on another faction, while the great mass of individuals simply look on, and a handful of self-seeking and self-glorifying persons act in their name. What is there of “entity” and what of “social” in such systems? The truth is, that the socialist, unknown to himself, is the most antisocial of all human beings, and, if he had his way, would render all true social action impossible. His creed of universal compulsion and wholesale effacement of the individual is the very essence of antisocialism. The true social life is the sum of all individual differences and energies; and if these component elements are to be suppressed, the resulting whole, the entity, necessarily disappears. Mr. Hobson—will he forgive me?—is the deadliest enemy conceivable to his own creation, his well-beloved social entity, just because he makes war upon the individual. In slaying the unit, he slays the whole, that is compounded from the units. In truth, under his system the individual, who is the living active element of the social entity, and apart from whom the social entity is a mere phrase and nothing more, is not simply to be suppressed, but is sentenced to an even harsher and more ignominious fate. Hitherto, most of the tyrants and autocrats, who have tried the experiment of fashioning the world in their own image, have been content, like the present German emperor, with planting their imperial feet upon the individual, and so suppressing him; but it has been left for Mr. Hobson and his friends to discover a more subtle and deadly way of abolishing him. They have buried him alive in the social entity, and explained him away. Even the modest luxury of a theoretical existence is denied him at their hands. And what “plowing of the sands”; what good literary labor thrown away! For, as we have just seen, the more you suppress the individual, the further the possibility of the social entity, in its true sense, recedes. There is only one result you can get out of the suppression of the individual, and that is the organized dominant faction triumphing over the defeated faction. Every form of socialism only represents the dominant faction—that and nothing more; and if socialists wish to bring names and things into a true correspondence with each other, they should change their name and call themselves the antisocialists. But that is to ask for much. For they are at present lost in the region of phrases, and have yet to learn the simple truth, that there is no real social life conceivable apart from the free movement of the individual—apart from the free play of the individual will and conscience.