G.K.’s Weekly, January 24, 1935
We all know that the Socialists, or at least the more solid sort of Socialists who have since hardened into Communists, found their scientific basis in something that was called the Economic Theory of History. I could best sum up my own view of it by saying that I hold the flatly contrary theory; which might fairly be called the Historical Theory of Economics. It seems to me that the most prominent fact about practical economics is that the economic issue has always been conditioned and controlled and modified, and even twisted into the strangest and most abnormal shapes, by the actual adventure-story that is called history.
There is, of course, an economic minimum which must always be present in some shape; Marx did not discover Man, nor the somewhat obvious fact that Man as an animal must eat and drink something. But the really realistic question of what he eats and drinks, and what he will actually do to get what he eats and drinks, how far he will be content with the very least or what will drive him to demand the most, these are the factors that produce the outstanding features of the story; and these are almost entirely determined by the story itself. They are determined by what sort of a story it is at that particular stage; whether it is a love-story; whether it is a murder-story; whether it is (as it very often is) a ghost-story; above all, they are determined from the very first by what may be called the moral of the story.
In other words, men in their way of getting a living, or even in their hold on life, are prodigiously affected by whatever they believe or imagine to be the meaning of life. Normally, they will go on obtaining a bare living somehow; but even this generalisation is perpetually upset by the irruption of eccentric minorities, consisting of persons called pessimists or suicides or monks or martyrs or even mere vulgar fighting men; dying by millions for a cause or creed. Even the minority of those who, for one reason or another, actually refuse to live or prefer to die, is quite a sufficiently large minority to make a considerable disturbance and a considerable difference to the actual course of human history. And when we pass from these to the normal mass of men, who normally would prefer to go on living as long as possible, we do not find that even these normal men are normal at all abnormal moments. We find their practical course of action profoundly altered, and the whole of their history with it, by the presence of obstacles and objects of desire, which are none the less solid and decisive because they are immaterial or invisible.
The truth is that the mere economic motive would never have produced anything like what we call the history of men; even if it produced something like the history of mice. Even if we merely think that men have behaved too much like mice, we shall in fact find that some notion of moral order was behind their action; was behind even their inaction. We may think we can prove their inaction to be servile, to be superstitious; the one thing we cannot prove it to be is materialistic; or even economic.
Nobody has noticed. I think, that Marx gave away the whole Marxian thesis in one sentence; which is perhaps the most famous sentence he ever spoke. He entirely abandoned the Economic Theory of History when he said, “Religion is the opium of the people.” In saying that, he took a purely moral influence and made it the origin of purely material action—or inaction. He made ethics the cause of economics, instead of vice versa; for all the world as if he had been a sane human being. It does not affect the point that he would call faith the people’s opium and I should call faith the people’s wine. In neither case is it alleged that the opium was distilled from any material poppy, or the wine crushed from any mortal grape.
In this case it is interesting to compare the logician with the literary man, who is always much more logical than the logician. When Mr. Aldous Huxley created his horrible Utopia of materialism, he was particularly careful to avoid this contradiction. The point of Brave New World is not that religion is the opium of the people. It is that opium is the religion of the people. A definite medical and material drug is administered to all the citizens, to satisfy any dark craving they may retain for ideal happiness or visions of immortal beauty.
That is really bringing the Marxian materialistic theory to its logical conclusion. But the Marxians have not brought the Marxian theory to its conclusion. They have only brought it to its end.
After considerable reflection, and even at some considerable inconvenience, I have come to the conclusion that our paper and our party group still have a part to play; and that we cannot rightly leave the fulfilment of the ideals of our lives to the many excellent alternative groups, which are experimenting in different methods in the matter of machinery. And my reasons for coming to this conclusion, which I propose to sketch here in a rough outline, are all bound up with this primary principle which was challenged by the Marxian heresy; the principle that as there is no perpetual motion in mechanics, so there is no perpetual and self-correcting machine made out of mere economics. What was the matter with the Capitalists was not even Capitalism, let alone Capital. It was Materialism of exactly the same type as that which filled the Marxian with his two amazing delusions; first, that his materialism was something new; and second that his materialism was something in some way hostile to Capitalism. But in fact the Capitalist has always held all the heresies of the Communist; including the materialist theory of history. The men of the time and type of Buckle or Bentham had in every sense a Bolshevist view of history; which was, in substance, simply a contempt for history. They also were ignorant enough to believe that religion is the opium of the people; with the practical consequence that they treated the most tremendous and dramatic transitions of history, times full of intense and incessant intellectual activity, as mere periods of sleep. They did not believe in the legend of the Resurrection; for the idea of resurrection involves waking-up. But they did believe in the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus; only that they extended it to a legend of seven million sleepers who slept for twice seven hundred years. It was the Benthams and the Buckles, the Individualists and the Capitalists, who began the whole business of treating every religious idea as a drug and every religious epoch as a dream. Unless we can get our philosophy and history right, we might almost as well leave our economics wrong; for they will certainly go wrong, if left entirely to themselves.