How the Other Half Lives essays
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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.
This article appeared in the Fortnightly Review for July 1850.
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.”