What Makes a Social System Good or Bad?
Among most people at most times, the commonest way of judging is simply by inherited prejudices. Any society which is not in astate of rapid transition has customs and beliefs which have been handed down from previous generations, which are unquestioned, and which it appears utterly monstrous to go against. Such are the customs connected with religion, the family property and so on. The peculiar merit of the Greeks was due largely to the fact that, being a commercial and seafaring people, they came across the customs and beliefs of innumerable and widely differing nations, and were thus led to a sceptical examination of the basis of all such customs, including their OWll. If my memory serves me, there is somewhere in Herodotus a story of a conversation between some Greeks and a barbarian tribe, in which the Greeks expressed horror of the barbarians for the
125 practice of eating their dead, but the barbarians expressed quite equal horror of the practice of burying the dead, which to them was just as shocking as the other to the Creeks. Such experiences of intercourse with other nations diminish the hold which merely inherited beliefs have upon the man who lives in a fixed environment. In our age, this efEect is produced not only by travel and commerce, but also by the changes in social custom inevitably caused by the growth of industrialism. Wherever industry is weH developed and not very new, one finds that religion and the family, which are the twin props of every merely traditional social structure, lose their hold over men's minds. Consequently the force of tradition is less in the present age than it has ever been before. Nevertheless, it is even now as great probably as aH other forces combined. Take, for example, the belief in the sacredness of private property-a belief bound up originally with the patriarchal family, the right which a man was supposed to have to the produce of his own labour, and the right which he was able to extort to what he had conquered by the sword. In spite of the antiquity and diminishing strength of these ancient grounds of belief in private property, and in spite of the fact that no new grounds are suggested, the enormous majority of mankind have a deep and unquestioning belief in its sacredness, due largely to the taboo efEect of the words "thou shalt not steal." It is clear that private property is an inheritance from the preindustrial era when an individual man or family could make an individual product. In an industrial system a man never makes the whole of anything, but makes the thousandth part of a million things. Under these circumstances, it is totally absurd to say that a man has a right to the produce of his own labour. Consider a porter on a railway whose business it is to shunt goods trains: what proportion of the goods carried can be said to represent the produce of his labour? The question is wholly insoluble. Therefore it is impossible to secure social justice by saying that each man shaH have what he himself produces. Early socialists in the days before
Marx were apt to suggest this as a eure for the injustices of capitalism, but their suggestions were both utopian and retrograde, since they were incompatible with large-scale industry. It is, therefore, evident that the injustice of capitalism cannot be cured so long as the sacredness of private property is recognized. The Bolsheviks have seen this and have, therefore, confiscated all private capital for the use of the State. It is because they have challenged men's belief in the sacredness of private property that the outcry against them has been so great. Even among professing socialists there are many who feel a thrill of horror at the thought of turning rich men out of their mansions in order to make room for overcrowded proletarians. Such instinctive feelings are difficult to overcome by mere reason. The few men who do so, like the leading Bolsheviks, have to face the hostility of the world. But by the actual creation of a social order which does not respect merely traditional prejudices, more is done to destroy such prejudices in ordinary minds than can be done by a century of theoretical propaganda. I believe it will appear, when time enables men to see things in due proportion, that the chief service of the Bolsheviks lies in their practical challenge to the belief in private property, a belief existing by no means only among the rich, and forming at the present time an obstacle to fundamental progressso great an obstacle that only its destruction will make a better world possible.