Studies in Socialism/Truth or Fiction?

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XV

TRUTH OR FICTION?[1]

 

I was present the other day, quite by chance, at the successful trial trip of M. Santos Dumont's airship at Longchamp. It is for man a great emotion and a great joy to witness a new victory of man over inanimate things. I do not know what the practical value of these experiments may be. They are undoubtedly only the feeble beginning of an uncertain invention, because it seems that the aëronaut cannot risk his balloon against the full strength of the wind and probably his motors could not stand a long trip.

But he does steer: he makes the balloon turn in every direction and then go like an arrow to the point he has fixed upon. For the first time the line of a human will has been marked in space, the plan of a human thought developed. Until now balloons could only be steered in a vertical direction, and that very clumsily. They dropped lower when part of their gas was allowed to escape, they rose higher when part of their ballast was thrown overboard, but beyond that they were a prey to the forces of nature, the plaything of winds and violent or treacherous currents.

Man, suddenly helpless and paralysed, was swallowed up by space. He was nothing more than a thing subject to the blind sway of the elements, and his mind was a passive spectator of the struggle of different forces; it could not control, it could not interfere. Man is really present only when thought is active and will is at least partly effective. So until now it was only a sort of effigy of man and not man himself who braved the heights. Now at last man with his imperious will and his definite and vigorous thought is asserting himself in the upper spaces.

It was not without emotion that I saw the balloon, after having turned on itself several times to test its power, start off swiftly and go in a straight line exactly to the spot toward which the mind of man was steering it by the rudder. Here was no longer the light caprice of natural forces, no longer the terrifying lawlessness of the currents and winds. In their place had been substituted the rectitude of human thought, the systematic inflexibility of the human will, master at last of what had been for us hitherto the region of the formless, the unregulated, and the chaotic. It was a splendid sight and stirred all one's mental pride.

As I watched that swift and well regulated flight I thought of Homer's marvellous intuition and of his magnificent simile in which he seems to have a presentiment of the future harmony of submissive nature and sovereign mind: "Their ships went afar off, swift and true as the flight of thought." Now it was the air-ship that went, not yet afar off, but swift and true like thought. Marvellous intuition of the Greek poet, making the harmony of thought the ideal measure of all motion.

That is the aim of man, that is the object of life eternally carried on by the species: to subdue all nature to the harmonious law of mind. And human society will come under the same sway, for it too is still but a part of nature, it is blind and unconscious as she is and composed of brutal and obscure forces at war with each other and controlled by no one.

And those phenomena that we call crises, what are they if not a revelation of the chaotic and rebellious nature that still forms the basis of human society? We can never have a "human" society or humanity, in the true sense of the word, until men have learned to govern social phenomena as they are learning to govern natural phenomena. In that frail balloon moving deliberately toward its goal I see a part of the immense human problem. I might express it in this way: to make life, social life as well as natural life, a thing that can be steered, and to confide the management of it to humanity itself, a humanity that shall be free, self-conscious, and united. Thus the thoughts familiar to Socialists took on fresh shape and meaning to me.

But ironic reality, that sometimes takes delight in a juxtaposition of events as fanciful as romance, recalled me quickly to the world of vain quarrels, sharp disputes, and misunderstandings. While I was rejoicing in a free impersonal pride the pride of the human race and of Socialism, and was looking with emotion on the spectacle presented by victorious man, master of nature and of himself, a knot of curious observers had been formed. They were watching the bold attempt and were nearly all enthusiastic and sympathetic. But I recognised one of my friends, a man whose conclusions often distress me, on the outskirts of the group. He is a rather excitable but perfectly sincere journalist who, when he is telling a story, only gets confused in the matter of names and dates, or so his editor says.

He alone remained sombre and doubting as though he were carrying the burden of a bitter secret.

"How strange!" he murmured; "here is a justification of all our suspicions. He could turn from right to left and he turns from left to right, the direction of every treachery."[2]

The people who stood about were astonished.

"Will you never be able to see and understand?" he went on in a sharper tone. "After giving you all the ideas you have, must I explain this to you too? Don't you see that this man has agreed to go round the Eiffel Tower that was built with the stolen Panama money? Don't you see that in bringing the Eiffel Tower into an experiment that is, anyway, of very doubtful value but that has excited all the faddists of progress and of science, they wished to rehabilitate the Panama Company and Eiffel, and Waldeck-Rousseau, who was their champion? I say to you, I who have not been bought by either cheats or fools, what you see up there is a trick of the Ministry and the Panama Company. That man has stolen right and left: he has stolen from the public secret funds and I, I alone will denounce him."

And, as the balloon disappeared behind the glowing tops of the autumn trees, he cried in a voice that was rather sharp and shrill:

"Panamiste! Panamiste!"

I was pondering over this amazing sequence of ideas and awaiting with some anxiety the reappearance of the poor abused balloon when a "revolutionist" hailed me. He is an authentic, implacable, impeccable revolutionist, one of those whose loyal service to the Revolution can never be brought into question, since they spend precisely the whole of their lives in accusing others of not serving it. Just then the balloon reappeared, struggling against the wind this time, tossed by invisible billows, pitching and plunging, but in spite of all keeping firmly on its way on that uncertain and troublous upper sea. The revolutionist pointed to the poor little balloon that with puny but heroic steadfastness was moving toward its goal. His gesture was haughty and contemptuous.

"There," he said roughly, "you see where all the compromises of Empiricism and Reformism lead to! Is that what science prophesied? Is that what we in the name of science promised to the people and to humanity? Men have been promised complete control over the air; they have been told that they are to mount to the level of the mountain-tops without effort and that they are to have dominion over infinite horizons. And now what is offered to them? A little promenade of a few miles two hundred metres above the earth, in easy, mediocre, bourgeois weather. I call it a shame, a miserable trick.

"We were expecting a Leviathan of the air, that was to carry the whole human race, freed from the bonds of gravity, fastened to his great belly. And they offer us this little flying-fish, this minnow from the Seine that has jumped out of the water. Mystification and abdication! The way to take the strength and courage out of people is by producing these grotesque parodies, these sham discoveries that can only be compared to sham reforms. We refuse to countenance such disillusionising attempts. We refuse to countenance such imitations of the great scientific programme.

"And then what is the use of inventing balloons under our present social conditions? You know perfectly well that no one will profit by them but the members of the privileged class. They will be class balloons. Citizen Lafargue was right when he said that the scientists, Volta, Galvani, Ampère, Oersted, and the others, had only invented electricity so that the capitalists could force women to work at night. Here we have an ingenious application of economic materialism and a useful warning. Who knows what plot international capitalism will mature in the lofty solitude of the night when a fleet of airships are able to give each other a meeting-place there?

"No, indeed, we are not going to be deceived; we are not going to compromise ourselves. Since they desire schism, let them have it. We will found the group of Revolutionary Aëronauts, in other words, of aëronauts who will wait until the Revolution is accomplished before they invent balloons. Science would prostitute itself if it allowed a ray of glory to light up the last days of bourgeois society. We will leave to others the shame of this prostitution."

In spite of this tirade, the poor little scorned and excommunicated balloon was enduring the final onslaught of a wind-wave more violent than the others, before arriving at the end that the humble and glorious will of man had set for it. By a supreme effort it overcame, and as it began to descend with a precise, slow, and measured movement the "revolutionary" raised his cursing voice and cried:

"Come down, come down! you are desecrating our ideal."


  1. Petite République, October 26, 1901.
  2. The reactionary parties sit on the right in the French Parliament.