Studies in Socialism/Moonlight
I was walking the other evening in the country, and talking with a young friend who had just graduated among the first of his class at the École Polytechnique after having done very good work in literature, and who is as broad-minded as he is keen.
Our way led over a broad upland, shut in on the left by low rounded hills which were separated by ravine-like meadows. The full moon lit up the fresh clear space, and the pale distant stars shone with a tender sweetness. The road, white under the radiance, stretched out straight before us and was lost far away in the mystery of the horizon, bathed in light and shadow. It seemed to lead from reality to dreamland.
"Yes," I said to him, "the thing that angers me in our present society is not only the physical suffering that might be mitigated by another régime, but the moral suffering that is brought by a state of warfare and monstrous inequality.
"To labour should be a natural function and a joy; often it is nothing more than servitude and suffering. It ought to be the war waged by all mankind united against inanimate things, against the fatalities of nature and the difficulties of life; it is the war of man with man. Men spend their days struggling to take from one another the joys of life by fraud, by the arts of bitter greed, the oppression of the weak, and all the violent methods of unlimited competition. Even among those who are called happy there are few who are really happy, because the brutal conditions of life hold them in their grip; they hardly have the right to be just and kind under pain of ruin. In the universal warfare, some are the slaves of their fortune as others are the slaves of their poverty. Yes, above and below, our present social order produces nothing but slaves, because those men are not free who have neither the time nor the strength to follow the noblest instincts of their minds and their souls.
"And if you look at the lower grades, what poverty you see, I don't say in the means of life, but in life itself! Look at the millions of labourers; they work in the factories and in the workshops, yet they have no right whatever in those factories and workshops; they can be turned out to-morrow. Neither have they any right over the machine they tend, no share of ownership in the immense tool that humanity has bit by bit created for itself; they are strangers in the organised power of the world; they are almost strangers in the civilisation of the world.
"In the mines, the canals, the railroads, the ports, the prodigious applications of steam and electricity and all the great enterprises that develop the power and the pride of man, they have no part, no part at all, except that of inert instruments. They have no seat in the councils that decide on new undertakings and direct them; these are entirely in the hands of a limited class which knows all the joys of intellectual activity and hardy initiative, just as it possesses all the pleasures of wealth, and which would be happy if it were permitted to man to be happy apart from human solidarity. There are millions of labourers who are reduced to an inert and mechanical existence. And, terrifying as the idea is, if to-morrow machines could be substituted for them, nothing would be changed in human existence.
"When, on the contrary. Socialism has triumphed, when conditions of peace have succeeded to conditions of combat, when all men have their share of property in the immense human capital, and their share of initiative and of the exercise of free-will in the immense human activity, then all men will know the fulness of pride and joy; and they will feel that they are co-operators in the universal civilisation, even if their immediate contribution is only the humblest manual labour; and this labour, more noble and more fraternal in character, will be so regulated that the labourers shall always reserve for themselves some leisure hours for reflection and for a cultivation of the sense of life.
"They will have a better understanding of the hidden meaning of life, whose mysterious aim is the harmony of all consciences, of all forces, and of all liberties. They will understand history better and will love it, because it will be their history, since they are the heirs of the whole human race. Finally, they will understand the universe better; because when they see conscience and spirit triumphing in humanity, they will be quick to feel that this universe which has given birth to humanity cannot be fundamentally brutal and blind, that there is spirit everywhere, soul everywhere, and that the universe itself is simply an immense confused aspiration toward order, beauty, freedom, and goodness. Their point of view will be changed; they will look with new eyes not only at their brother men, but at the earth and the sky, rocks and trees, animals, flowers, and stars.
"And that is why we have the right to think of these things in the open fields and under the starlight sky. Yes, we can call the sublime night to witness our sublime hopes, the night in which new worlds are being formed in secret, and we can mingle the immense gentleness and sweetness of peaceful nature with our vision of human gentleness and sweetness."
"Well and good," answered my young engineer, "but why don't you simply talk about social progress; why do you bring in Socialism? Social progress is a real thing, whereas Socialism is nothing but a word. It is the name of a small, but very vehement or rather violent sect, which is, moreover, divided against itself: it is not a serious force making for progress. Possibly the solutions which the Socialists propose will be gradually adopted, but their triumph will not be due to the Socialists. There will never be a government acting and legislating in the name of Socialism, because a government has to base its action on existing facts, even when it is reforming the present order or creating a new order. Well, Socialism poses as an overwhelming revelation, a new gospel, that looks to the future itself for the basis on which to build the future.
"As a matter of fact, all the elements of the problem exist already in our present society and the solution is indicated or even roughly sketched in: the solution of the social problem is wholly comprised in political liberty, the development of popular education, and the right of labour to organise. Well, political liberty exists, education, and an education always more advanced, is becoming more and more diffused in the labour world, and the workers have the right to organise.
"When they are better educated they will begin by taking part through their imagination and their intelligence in all great human undertakings, and when their personal subjective value has been increased in this way, it will react of its own accord on the social régime by an irresistible action from within outward. For instance, if all the children of the lower classes acquire the taste and the need for reading, if their education has been vital and effective enough to bring about this result, it is impossible that this universal need will not in the end insure to the workers some hours of leisure for the pleasures of the mind, by a more economical regulation of the work. Moreover, when they understand the mechanism of production and exchange better, when they know exactly what conditions obtain in manufacture generally and in their industry in particular, what its markets are, what capital is invested in it and how much more capital could be profitably employed in its development, then these men, free, organised, and well educated as they will be, will by the very nature of things begin to be admitted as members of the boards of directors of the great corporations, and afterwards, little by little, to the management of ordinary business concerns. The next step will be profit-sharing, and a share of authority and of economic power.
"But I repeat, all this will be accomplished without the aid of any high-sounding formulas, and we shall find that we have arrived at the end of Socialism without ever having come across Socialism on the way. Old sailors make the new hands believe that when they go from one pole to the other they have to pass over the line of the equator, stretched taut and firm on the surface of the sea. No, the hue is never seen, and unless most minute calculations are made we cross it without having any idea that we have done so: in the same way we shall cross the Socialist equator.
"The revolutionaries of 1848, for whom you appear to cherish an affection, were generous but extremely annoying. They never spoke of the Future without a capital letter, and they contrasted the Past and the Present as though they were respectively an archangel of light and a demon from the pit. They were constantly feeling the breath of the future pass in their long hair, and thrill through their long beards. They looked for the man of the future, the society of the future, the science of the future, the art of the future, the religion of the future. I even believe they thought the modest sun that gives us light a very mediocre, very bourgeois, sort of star, and that they were looking for the sun of the future.
"It always seemed to them that souls inflamed and burning with zeal were going to raise up a new social order, as the internal fire in our earth can raise up new mountain peaks; and there was not a little pride mingled with this hope, because they had made up their minds beforehand that they were to be the managers or directors of the new society, and the new mountain-tops were to be their pedestal. What illusions of generosity! what chimeras of vanity! The main form of human society, like that of earth itself, is fairly definitely established; there will be transformations, but not any vast metamorphosis. There will not be a social upheaval any more than there will be a geological upheaval.
"Human progress has entered upon its silent period, which is not the least productive. Pascal used to say, when he looked at the sky spread out above our heads: 'The eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me.' For me, on the contrary, after these times of election excitement, of newspaper polemics and all our wordy agitation, it has a message of consolation and encouragement. The universe knows how to accomplish its work without any noise; no declamations echo in those heights, no flaming programme obtrudes itself among the tranquil constellations. I believe that French society has at last entered upon that happy stage where everything is accomplished quietly and without any jars, because everything is accomplished in its full maturity. There will be reforms, great reforms even, but they will come to pass without having been given a name, and they will not trouble the calm life of the nation any more than the dropping of ripe fruit troubles the still autumn days. Humanity will raise itself insensibly toward fraternal justice, just as the earth that bears us rises with a silent motion in the starry spaces."
"My dear fellow, I can hardly wait to answer you, I have so many things to say."
"No, no; don't answer me to-night, only look and listen. While we are dreaming of the future and arguing, everything that lives, everything that exists is giving itself up to the joy of the passing moment, to the instant sweetness of the serene night. The peasants are going in groups to the meeting-place of the farm to gather in the corn, and as they go they are singing in a full chorus; the awakened snake trembles a little and then sleeps again in the mystery of the thicket. In the stubble, in the dried-up fields, some poor little creatures are still singing; their music is not insistent and universal as it is in the warm spring nights or the hot summer nights; but they will sing till the end, as long as they are not really frozen by the winter. Fires of dry grass glow in the middle of the fields, and the moonlight envelops and softens their gleam; it is as though the spirit of the earth flamed and was mingled with the mysterious light of the skies. Stray dogs are barking at a belated waggon that comes slowly along the road, lit by a little lantern and drawn by a little donkey. A lovelorn owl hoots plaintively in the chestnut grove; the ripe chestnuts fall with a thud and roll down the little valleys. A small green frog is croaking near the fountain; the heavens shine and the earth sings. Come, let the universe be; it contains joy for all. It is Socialistic after its own fashion."
- La Dépêche, October 15, 1890.