Collective, Where Do We Stand Now?

From Karl Polanyi
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[1] However greatly opinions may vary as to the causes which have produced the present world-upheaval, or as to the kind of remedies which must be applied if there is to be any decent security for mankind in the future, we shall at least agree that the crisis through which we are passing is of profound historical significance. Our period marks the end of a chapter. For the political, economic and social changes which will be involved if any peace-settlement is to be achieved are likely to be so fundamental that a new type of civilization must almost certainly be created in the process. In such a situation any attempt to revive the old order would be doomed to failure. Even politicians are beginning to talk of establishing a 'new world'.

Most of us are conscious, indeed that it is not enough to take a short-term view and concentrate our attention on the problems immediately confronting us. The 'new world' will be no more than an abstract idea in our minds, a pious sentimentality, if we are unable to comprehend the direction in which events are moving, or to conceive the ultimate ends which we should seek to achieve. On the other hand, we have to beware of the tendency which is evident in many quarters to-day to formulate detailed programmes of the political and economic reforms which it is considered should be applied when hostilities have ceased. There is an obvious futility in such schemes. Those who draw them up most eagerly are not usually the people who are likely to be able to exercise much influence upon the Government when the war ends. Moreover, the act of compiling 'peace aims' and of becoming absorbed in a campaign for promulgating these aims tends to draw the support of such enthusiasts to the side of the Government on the false assumption that the Government will be coerced into carrying their programme into effect. None of us – the Government included – can foretell with [2] any accuracy what the outcome of the struggle will be, though recent emergency decrees suggest that the Government fears socialist opposition in the future and is preparing for this eventuality.

Nevertheless, it is well that men and women to-day should be thinking about and discussing such questions as the kind of the new world which they desire to create. It is essential that post-war policy should not be dictated, as was largely the case in 1919, by statesmen uncontrolled by intelligent public opinion. Moreover, if public opinion is to be effective, it must view the existing conflict in a wider perspective than that merely of an attempt to overthrow the Nazi rulers in Germany. We must try to discover the process which is at work beneath the present war so as to estimate what is happening and what is likely to happen to the world.

Has Christianity any Relevance To-day?

This pamphlet emanates from a group of men and women who believe that they have a contribution to make in this work of interpreting the present course of history. Their standpoint is defined in a statement which will be found on the last two pages and which was drawn up before the war. The Christian Left is a movement which is independent of any of the existing Christian institutions, and which does not identify Christianity with the Churches. Indeed, in its view, in the process of preserving the message of Jesus traditional Christianity has largely misunderstood it. This movement claims to be Christian in so far as it attempts consciously to carry into action what it believes to be the intention of Jesus. The endeavour to discover and to fulfil what Jesus intended us to fulfil, The Christian Left holds, the only valid test as the who or what is Christian.

Has the intention of Jesus any more than an historical interest? Has it any relevance to the issue which confront us to-day? The answer which the Christian Left would give is that Jesus's life and message, as recorded in the scriptural Gospels, constitute so penetrating a revelation as to provide [3] the key to this and to all world transformation. The impact of Jesus's message on European civilization has been and is, in fact, a driving force in history, Europe being the area where the Christian tradition has had chief influence. The Christian Left claims, indeed, that only if the teaching of Jesus is examined and understood, are we likely to appreciate the meaning of history and the end to which it is working. Since this conclusion requires a critical consideration we must set out, though necessarily in summary form, what appear to be the cardinal features of that teaching.

The First Commandment of Life

Jesus insisted that the universal reality which surrounds us, and of which we are a part, is something with which we can enter into complete communion. So intimate can be this relation that Jesus, describing this universal as God, symbolizes, Him as 'Father'. Jesus's relation to God was, in fact, personal, and he accepted absolutely as a first commandment or rule of life that we must love God. It is here that we may become entangled in the controversial associations which cluster round the term 'God'. There is no need so to become entangled, for much of the distinction between theism and atheism is due to a confusion of thought. Those who describes themselves as atheist usually do so because they reject certain theories as to the attributes of God, such as that He is personal or super-personal. The root-question, however, is whether our attitude to the world can properly be described in the terms of our experience of human relations and whether we can therefore regard the process of the world as 'personal'. Can we make ourselves so wholly one with reality that we can love and not fear the world in which we live? Jesus himself achieved this complete oneness and insisted that this, and all that it entails, is the way to live and to live abundantly. He claimed that once we can attain this unity our consciousness is enlarged, we are transformed. Many of those who would regard themselves as pagan or atheist can testify that in their experience this claim is justified.

[4] If we know that we can enter into full relationship with reality it means that we can co-operate with it. We can co-operate in shaping history, and the fact that this co-operation is possible - that our intentional co-operation is a factor in developing history - means, further, that history is not a chance sequence of events but is a process as God's will. If we co-operate with His will, we join ourselves to the springs of eternal life: if we try to frustrate His will, we die.

It may perhaps be necessary to emphasize that to accept reality (to love God) implies our active co-operation. Because we believe history to be a divine process it does not mean that we sit still and wait for it to work out its purpose. To become passive or fatalist is to misunderstood the meaning of love. Love is not a passive attitude: it is a consuming force, a directed energy.

Though during and after this war we may be called upon to suffer privations and an immense dislocation of the order to which we have been accustomed, our task is not merely to endure but vigorously to transform these conditions, so that out of them a better world may be produced.

If we love God we are required to devote our whole energy to the struggle of fulfilling His purpose in history. We are part of universal reality, not detached from it. We are not pawns in history but determining factors, the more so as we study its process so as to play our part intelligently.

The Second Commandment of Life

The second rule of life which Jesus proclaimed is that we must love our neighbour as ourself. Here we are confronted with perhaps the most unique feature of his teaching. This rule of life is 'like unto' the first: it must not be dissociated from it. Our immediate contact with reality, in fact, our direct experience of God, is realized in the field of our personal relations. Human nature, Jesus emphasized, is such that man can only express his personality through the [5] associations of love and friendship which he forms with his fellows.

The implications of this truth have been stressed in other Christian Left publications. Here, therefore, we will only point out that, as Jesus taught, these human relationships of their very essence cannot depend on material associations, such as the blood-ties of family and race. It is the Samaritan - the social and ecclesiastical outcast - who is presented as one who understands the true meaning of neighbour: it is the men and women who are united with Jesus in their determination to bring about God's purpose who are his mothers and sisters and brothers.

If we appreciate this profound truth we shall see that, while race and family are biological groupings, the organized segregation of man into nation and class are historical developments and form no part of the natural, divine order. They are mainly to fear, to the frustration of love. God's will, as disclosed in the process of history, is to break down these barriers and establish the kingdom of universal community. As man awakens more fully to the realization of his own personality, he will become, therefore, an active agent in sweeping away the divisions of nation and class. Once again, so long as he co-operates with the divine will, he and his civilization will expand and live. If he resists that will, he will destroy himself, and his civilization will perish in the catastrophic explosions of modern warfare.

A Real Solution Must Involve Socialism

Within the scope of pamphlet it is obviously impossible to anticipate the various criticisms which this outlined interpretation of Jesus's teaching may provoke. With this qualification in mind, we must pass on to consider the situation which in the light of these conclusions, confronts us at the present stage of human development.

The immediate obstacle which stands in the way of further progress towards international community is national sovereignty. The partition of the human race into nations whose [6] governments are free to take any action they see fit in order to solve their own problems was recognized in 1919 as the radical cause of war-unsettlement. Some amelioration of this anarchy was attempted in the formation of the League of Nations. But the League proved in practice to be no more than a permanent conference of sovereign powers. When the League was faced with serious challenge its constituent members were found to be concerned with their national interests rather than with the international obligations which they had assumed. In Manchuria, Austria, Abyssinia, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Albania, the aggressor was able to carry out his brutal and lawless violence without interference.

It has accordingly become evident that the future security of mankind now demands some measure of ordered international control over the sovereign powers. In many quarters proposals for federal union are already forthcoming. Yet it should be obvious that to introduce any scheme of international order in the political sphere but to retain the system of national competition in the economic field is inconsistent and must find fresh outlets for the investments of its accumulations of capital which will yield quick returns and profits. The more far-sighted advocates of federal union recognize that the economic relations between nations, as well as their political relations, must not be left uncontrolled as at present, but regulated by a trade-plan. The moment, however, that such a proposal is made, the question arises as each nation are to be dealt with in order that the plan may be carried out. In a competitive system each vested interest has to make profits: that is its primary concern. A trade-plan necessitates a political control of economic activity, and ultimately, if this control is to be effective, private ownership, which is disclosed as the root of the difficulty, will have to be abolished. There is no escape from this, even though [7] attempts may be made to compromise in regard to it. Fascism secures political control of economic activity, but it does not provide an alternative to the abolition of private ownership of the means of production in the hands of a few small groups of private owners and of monopolies, thus perfecting the competitive power of the nation and intensifying international rivalry. Fundamentally, private ownership necessitates competition, a race for profits, and resistance to any scheme to any political control. Yet political control is a condition of any scheme to introduce international order in economy in place of the present economic struggle of the nations against one another.

For many persons socialism is a controversial term, mainly because they associate it with violent revolution and a repudiation of democratic principles. These and other objections deserve in their proper context a detailed reply. Here we can do no more than point out that a distinction must be drawn between the system and the manner in which it is introduced and administrated. There is, however, in this connexion, one consideration which is of peculiar importance for our purpose. The introduction of socialism would involve much more than an economic or political change: it would constitute a social and cultural transformation. The existence of different classes, for instance, is an integral part of the capitalist system, for if the sources of production are in private hands one class is created which derives wealth wholly or partly from owning property, and a larger, dependent class is formed which derives its means of livelihood solely from its labour. On the other hand, a socialist society is necessarily classless. There will be in it, as now, various groups of people drawn together by their tastes and interests; but, since all incomes will be earned as a return for service, each individual will have the same economic status. There will no longer be the existing distinction between employer and employee. Accordingly, our way of living and our cultural environment will be fundamentally affected.

The Religious Significance of the World-Crisis

The relevance of The Christian Left standpoint to the crisis of our times should now be obvious even to those who are unconvinced of the validity of that standpoint. Members of The Christian Left work to establish a socialist order in the world not for merely political reasons but from sheer religious conviction. In their view the message of Jesus points to the fact the establishment of a socialist society is the next stage in the historical process towards the establishment of a truly Christian order. Similarly, the present upheaval, the wars and threats of war in the preceeding years, the failure of the economic machine to distribute the necessaries of life to millions of suffering men and women, are signs that our capitalist-imperalist civilization has run its course, or - to use religious terminology - is under judgment.

The fact that there are still many people who would argue that religion has no concern with politics or economic systems is an indication of how largely Jesus has been misunderstood both by Christians and by sceptics. Those who take this view would claim that from the religious standpoint it does matter whether the form of government is democratic, fascist or communist, so long as the individuals profess certain beliefs about God or are at least 'Christian' in disposition. The theory that religion is concerned only with the purification of the individual usually leads to sentimentalization or to a type of mysticism which seeks refuge in a world which exists only in the imagination and lies outside the field of experience. This is as much a perversion of the truth as the opposite, utopian theory that the system alone matters and that once an intelligent economic order is created which provides opportunity for the happiness of the largest possible number all will be well. Actually, the success or failure of a socialist order will mainly depend on the behaviour and integrity of its members and particularly of those who play a responsible part in administering it.

Religion is essentially the unification of all sides of life. Our religion is incomplete unless we are able to perceive the [9] unity of our political, economic, social, cultural and domestic experience, and not merely to perceive this unity in theory but to act in the light of it.

A Socialist Economy is Not Enough

In the confusion, the spiritual 'black-out' in which we seem at the moment to be enveloped, there are certain conclusions which cannot be obscured. It is more than ever clear to-day that the foundations of the new age must be the achievement of a socialist economy. Henceforward any society which is based on other foundations will collapse, either suddenly or by a process of disintegration: such a society is a house built on sand, and now the storm has burst. Yet the most solid foundations without a house are of little value: we cannot live in foundations. A socialist economy, though necessary, is not enough. There is a real danger that once having secured the foundations we may proceed to build a prison. The recognition of this danger is widespread and is already causing a large number or people to believe that at all costs they must defend the superstructure which rests precariously upon the tottering basis of capitalism. In their view the struggle of our time is that of democracy against totalitarianism rather than of socialism against capitalism, and the vested interests of capitalism are using this legitimate fear of the strait-waistcoat of the totalitarian state to misinterpret the real issue towards which the present crisis is leading.

Against this confusion, with the disasters to the free life of the community which it threatens - whichever side wins the war - it is the function of The Christian Left to stand. We hold at once that socialism is the only foundation for the society of the future, and that Christianity is the only basis for a human community which is worthy of the socialist foundation. Unless the community that is built on the new foundation is unified by a belief in the supreme value of human personality its lease of life may be, for generations, inhuman and intolerable to the free spirit of man. The true [10] alternative to a socialism maintained by violent and authoritarian is not a so-called democracy, based on capitalist imperialism, not the preservation of that system for which Britain at present stands, but a socialist economy which is based on the teaching of Jesus and which, accordingly, involves a revolutionary transformation of society.

Our immediate Tasks

What then are our tasks in this time of conflict and confusion? We return here to the problem which was discussed on an earlier page. Compact programmes for a 'peace settlement' are unlikely to prove practicable in the kind of situation which will confront us after the war. There are many possibilities already on the political horizon which suggest the futility of applying and thinking in terms of a nineteenth-century type of peace settlement. An attempt, for example, may be made to restore a monarchist-militarist-imperialist government in Germany, with which we can make peace, and with whose help we can build up a federation of western powers on a so-called 'Christian' basis to resist the encroachment of an 'atheist' communism. Another policy which is being advocated in certain quarters is that of dismembering and crushing Germany. Again, the course of the war may produce a socialist revolution in Germany which Great Britain and France might attempt to subdue by marching troops across the Rhine, there, perhaps, to be met by Soviet troops determined to assist the revolution. Other situations; at present unforeseen, may have developed by the time this pamphlet is ready for circulation. It is a position in which it is almost impossible to calculate future eventualities.

Are we then forced to conclude that the upheaval is so vast that we are impotent and can do nothing but accommodate ourselves as best we can to whatever situation eventually matures? With the answer to that question this pamphlet can suitably conclude.

The first and most obvious task which we are called upon to undertake is to redouble our efforts to attain socialism, by [11] allying ourselves with those forces which are working in the political field for the classless society. In this country special conditions lay upon us the responsibility of making every effort to take the lead in securing socialism. We still have more reserves of wealth than any other European nation, and hence less prospect of immediate large-scale distress; we have behind us a long history or organized trade-unionism and of organized struggle by the working-class for freedom and better conditions of life. In addition, in the general political field, we have experience, not confined to one class, of central and local government.

A socialist structure which can secure true democracy is by no means easy to build. The inherent difficulty in all government is that those who govern must necessarily exercise power and that any continued and unchecked possession of power corrupts all the purest. The man who is most fitted to undertake the responsibility of governing is one who welcomes checks upon his power and the opportunities for being called to account. One of the safeguards of democratic government is that the executive, knowing that it will have to face criticism, to approve of censorship, to employ 'yes-men' and to encourage secrecy, is a danger-signal.

We are from having attained democracy in this country, for our economic system is undemocratic. So long as wealth in mainly held by a small class, that class holds the social and financial power and thus also tends to monopolize political influence.

Socialism has become a more vital issue than at any previous moment in history. Following the war, a lasting settlement, a true peace, will depend largely on whether we have secured a socialist basis for society. If, on the contrary, we have still in power an executive which is attempting to preserve our capitalist-imperialist order, we shall almost certainly be doomed to enter a period of fascism which can only lead [12] to fresh wars and upheavals: the effort to defend our Empire, and to resist economic democracy will necessitate an increasing curtailment of economic rights and the extension of emergency measures.

Moreover, the length of the war itself may depend on the coming to power of socialist forces, for it is only the representatives of such forces who are capable of publishing the kind of appeal likely to convince the peoples of the world that it is in their interests as well as ours to end the war.

Not only is the need for socialism more vital than ever, but such bodies as The Christian Left have an additional responsibility in proclaiming that need. Recent events have tended to disturb the previous political alignments: more than one political party has been discredited in the view of some of its former supporters. This is a time when it is peculiarly important to insist that socialism is a religious and not merely an economic obligation, that the only Christian answer to fascism is the socialism which arises out of a belief in the supreme significance of human personality.

The other task which we are called upon to undertake is more specifically personal. The substitution of a socialist for a capitalist order will involve far more than economic change. It will be a transformation which will penetrate deeply into our modes of living. Radical opposition to socialism comes not only from a political source but from the association of our habits and conventions. It is well that we should recognize how profoundly these changes will challenge our present design of living. Our domestic circumstances may considerably change their character, even before socialism is achieved. A prolongation of the war may produce such conditions that some forms of communal organization are forced upon groups of the working-class and other sections of society. Food and fuel may have to be shared to a degree which we have not as yet experienced.

Christians should recognize and welcome the emergence of such conditions as would result in some forms of communal organization, for it is in the sharing of our lives with others [13] that the pettiness and artificiality of social, class and sex distinction are exposed. Already some opportunities for communal experiment may be presenting themselves. If, for instance, a shortage of labour develops, many young women will be out of work all day and there will thus arise a need for nursery schools.

It is in such forms of community experience that we can prepare ourselves for a socialist future. We accept too readily the existing middle-class standards and leadership, as the working-class accepts too readily the standards forced upon it. But the social upheaval consequent on war-privations and evacuation hardships, provides the opportunity both for the constructive use of discontent and for the developing of latent powers of organization and leadership. If, at last, the working-class can see that most of the hardships from which it suffers are inseparable from the capitalist system, then it will become class-conscious in a positive sense, that is in opposition to the forces which are in conflict with its mission as a class. At present, unfortunately with reason, the workers have too often little faith in their own leaders and in their ability to produce leaders. As they develop class-consciousness through experiences like evacuation and through struggles to retain their standards of life, they could develop leaders in whom they would have faith, and faith in their own power as a class.

The difficulties of any direct attempt to experiment in community-living are great, for such experiments within the framework of a capitalist environment tend to be unreal. Generally such attempts result in creating communities which provide an escape from the world, self-contained and closed societies which rapidly develop the symptoms of a precious sectarianism. We have to live in the world, whatever the cost to ourselves, and our conception of community must be carefully distinguished from any schemes of segregation. Nevertheless, worsening conditions may bring into existence embryonic forms of community-living; we should be ready to recognize and share in such developments when [14] ever they are breaking down class-barriers and social resistance to change.

We shall lay the foundations of the new world effectually only if we are able to raise up a body of trained men and women who are capable of acting as pioneers and of becoming heirs of the new socialist age. Socialism will be proof against the obstacles and perils of the future only it it is the fruit of a genuinely religious movement. The religious method adopted by Jesus was to choose a small band of disciples, who, after living together and receiving an intensive training, went out into the world to preach his gospel. Similarly, the Communist Party in Russia under Lenin was confined to those vocation had been strictly tested and re-tested, so that they fitted to undertake the work of establishing a socialist society.

Now is the time, if ever, when we must prepare to contribute our quota to the ranks of those men and women who through their experience of personal living, through adequate political education and because of their religious faith are capable of fulfilling this mission. We, if we are to be of their number, must be reborn before we can inherit the new world. The revolution must take place not merely in the political system but our own personalities. We must learn to free ourselves from the inhibitions of the past. We must learn to free ourselves from the inhibitions of the past. We must be able to think and act in the terms of the new age. Neither in our ideas nor in our mode of living must we enslaved by our traditions. We must be politically conscious and religiously, i.e. wholly, 'converted'. We must have attained, at least in part, to that oneness with reality which Jesus perfectly achieved.

Further information about the Christian Left may be obtained by writing to Miss Janet Jordan, 172 Russell Court, London, W.C.1.

Text Informations

Collective, Christian Left Pamphlet No. 5, 1940
Src : British Library