Socialism of the present moment

Around three years ago I ran into an old work colleague that I had not seen for years. I remembered him as an obstreperous old-school lefty who was seemingly incapable of social interaction without causing an argument and/or offence. I was a fellow ‘lefty’ myself and even I found him impossible, and to be quite honest, wholly obnoxious. My natural inclination upon seeing him was to recognise that this engagement would take at least five minutes of my time so I sought to make it as easy as possible for the both of us by pushing at a door which I assumed would still be at least slightly ajar. The conversation went something like this:

‘Remember our old boss, what a wanker! I still recall you abusing him in staff meetings.’

‘Yes, I remember that.’

‘He didn’t change after you left, you’ll never guess what happened last year!’

But already I could tell he wasn’t playing ball. There was a passivity about him, a listlessness in his eyes, at least that’s what it seemed like from my point of view.

‘You seem different,’ I continued. ‘Have you calmed down?’

‘My wife made me go on a mindfulness course,’ he responded. ‘All this stuff is just not worth it.’

I was both stunned and impressed. If this guy could ‘let it go’ then I could too, surely? But, on the other hand, I didn’t want to let go of my anger. Anger was my righteous response to perceived injustices, was it not? My anger was in fact, my identity, my personality.

No, I could not give this up.

There was a reason for my anger. I was struggling in a hostile work environment that had been slowly killing me for many years. My only protection was anger, resistance, and my socialism. This was the narrative I told myself every day, and to give these things up would be tantamount to rendering myself defenceless.

Fate smiled on me, and due to a variety of circumstances, I left the job and knew that this was the perfect time to reconstruct my broken identity.

In fact I had little choice.

For many years, a growing interest in the broad idea of ‘Buddhism’ (or calming down) and a decline of my faith in the possibility of revolutionary socialism had opened up the possibility for change. But concrete circumstances prevented any real development. It was a case of one step forwards, three steps back, and an inevitable return to type every time the proverbial hit the fan. Now that I was ‘free’ I could change how I saw the world, my narrative, and perhaps most saliently, my identity.

This process is an on-going work-in-progress.

I started to meditate on a semi-regular basis. Fear prevented me from full commitment. What if it failed to work? I would be stranded in an existential no man’s land. I took baby steps, all the time being emotionally supported by my wonderful partner, family and my rekindled friendship with Stuart (the other writer on this blog) who had also been undergoing a similar journey. Over time I meditated more frequently and opened my mind to ideas and practices which had hitherto been blocked. I had previously understood the words, but they just bounced off my mind. I was not ready and words are never enough.

And this last insight struck me with a certain poignancy. Had my previous socialist identity just been words and abstract concepts? A futile resistance to life itself, masquerading as a critique of capitalism (whatever that might actually mean)?

Possibly.

Capitalism is very real, but what if, horror-of-horrors, this is just life – this thing we call ‘capitalism’? How to deal with injustice? How to create a more humane society?

***

In many respects mindfulness is the antithesis of socialism. Whereas the former exists in the present moment, the latter dwells in the past and the future. Mindfulness teaches ‘letting go’, socialism advocates day to day ‘resistance’ to existing reality – the bridge between the past and future erected around concepts and abstract ideas ie, words, thoughts. Looked at from this perspective, it is mindfulness rather than socialism that appears to be the materialist philosophy. All that is ‘real’ is the present moment or the ‘now’.

I have come to the conclusion that socialism’s best hope might actually exist in the here and now – a ‘socialism of the present moment’ if you will. As people become mindful and align themselves with an inner silence, which is essentially an alignment with the universe, a personal transformation which contains the seeds of social change are inevitably sown. Paradoxically, by giving up the ‘revolution’ (resistance) we open ourselves to the possibility of not only changing our own perception of reality, but social relationships as well. Perhaps a ‘mindful capitalism’ is all we can realistically achieve, but would it still be ‘capitalism’ – if capitalism itself is only a product of our own over-active intellectual minds? Socialism’s main drawback is its most attractive feature – it takes the ‘truth’ far too seriously and this is precisely what makes it so addictive.

Like my old friend, it is possible to be a ‘good socialist’ even if one’s personal skills are severely lacking. As long as one adheres to the agreed theory or party-line, such things are of no more importance as to who one sits next to in the after-meeting pub piss-up. Moreover, it can be seen as a virtue. The reason Comrade X is constantly rude and lacks common empathy, compassion and understanding is because he is so fixated on the project of global human emancipation… just not the actual humans in the room in the here and now. There never can be such justification in the world of mindfulness, other than the open admission that you have attached yourself to vices that you were planning to lose.

The power of mindfulness is its lack of muscularity. It is you – naked, alone, seeking reconnection to those around you, the void, the universe. Reconnection is frequently lost – sometimes several times a day. Each time first principles are revisited and reactivated. There is no dogma of pedigree, or time served. Each time is the first time – one strips down and starts again. There is no belief or theory just ‘This’ (whatever ‘this’ may or may not be.)

So I took off my ‘cloak of socialism’ and hid it away in the wardrobe. Or have I? With the passing of time I sometimes realise that I am in fact still wearing it.

A paradox? Maybe not.

We give up the ‘revolution’ to gain the only realistic possibility for true revolution – the spiritual one.

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What is money?

This is a piece we wrote for the SPGB’s summer school. The concluding sentence our regular readers will perhaps recognise, but it seems to us too good not to use at least twice.

The blind men and the elephant

What is money? As with pretty much everything else in the social sciences, you’ll get different answers depending on whom you ask. Societies are, after all, massively complex things, moved by human intention and will as much as by any other force, which makes them tricky things to analyse scientifically. Much heat, and occasionally some light, is generated by the conflict between the rival theories. Sometimes, of course, one theory will be contradicted by another, and one will be right and one wrong – which is which will be determined by an appeal to the facts. More often, in social science anyway, it will be a case of blind men feeling an elephant. If one blind man insists that the essence of elephants is trunkiness, and another tuskiness, and another thick-leggedness, then stepping back and taking a broader perspective, rather than choosing between them, will yield something closer to the truth.

Different theories of money are probably more like the blind men than they are like natural science. If they could be discriminated between on the basis of an appeal to the facts, then that would have happened long ago. It doesn’t matter then, for the purposes of my argument here, which theory of money one uses. I could have used any and come to the same result. But for novelty and variety, I have gone with one I hope Marxists will be less familiar with and hence find interesting.

A theory

Money, according to a theory with a long heritage but that came back into fashion in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, is a token issued by the state with the purpose of coercing work out of its population. How would that work? To answer that, let’s consider how money as we know it today might have originated. (The following story is not meant to be taken too literally as a historical account, but it probably captures something of the character of what really did happen.)

Once upon a time, there was a society without much in the way of money. Peasant communities produced directly for their own needs, and perhaps traded surpluses occasionally with nearby communities. For the purposes of trade, perhaps something like money had evolved as a convenience. But it played a peripheral role. Society was not organised around it. Then, one day, as happened now and then, the King decided to wage war with some other king, and an army was raised. This, as always, presented the state with a problem. To stand a chance of winning the war, the state had to keep the army on its feet, well fed and watered and sufficiently rested, and provided with all its other needs, bodily and military and spiritual, and this presented the state with an enormous economic calculation problem. Just how much food should be produced, and when, and distributed how? What spares and tools should be carried on the journey? How many horses, and how much feed will they require? Think about it even for a while and you’ll see that, even in a relatively simple feudal peasant society, the problems would not just be large – but intractable. The King had an idea. Perhaps he and his team of state advisers didn’t need to solve the problem at all. All they had to do was tax the peasants.

How would that work? All the state had to do to solve its economic problem was pay its soldiers in state-issued tokens, and impose a community-wide tax, to be paid only in state-issued tokens. The peasants, as we have seen, did not have much dealings with money at all, and none anyway in state-issued tokens. The state refuses to accept payment in kind or in any other kinds of money. What, then, is a peasant to do? What else but figure out ways of getting the soldiers’ tokens out of their hands and into their own? Figure out what it is soldiers need, then provide them with it in exchange for the tokens. The soldiers get their needs provisioned by the population. The peasants get their tax money and give it back to the state. The state has, merely by throwing bits of paper into circulation, coerced the population into stopping economic activity directly for its own needs and producing instead for the state. Magic. The magic, in fact, of the free market – of the Invisible Hand.

What follows?

If this theory captures something of the truth of money, and it surely does, then certain consequences follow. Social scientists working with this “modern monetary theory” have ideas about the implications for the working of modern economies. But for our purposes, it will be more interesting to consider what the consequences are for those socialists and communists who argue that modern society could do without money. Our sketch above helps throw some light on the arguments of those who say that it could and should, and those who say it’s impossible.

Those who say it’s impossible look at the role of the King and his state, and see just how much more intractable the problem of economic calculation has become in modern societies. To take just a few of an infinitely sprouting set of questions, how much energy need be produced to mine the gold for use in the army’s GPS equipment? And what would be the most efficient energy source for that mine? And might that gold not be better put to use in the aerospace industry? And so on ad infinitum. Money is the means by which society answers these questions and it can’t do without it.

Those who look forward to a moneyless society, on the other hand, just read the story backwards. What about those previous peasant communities that got along perfectly well producing directly for need and without much use for money? Had they not been perfectly happy and relatively prosperous before the King came along with his magic tokens? Could we not, now, do likewise? The claim that we could must take one of two options. Either the argument is that we could go back to some kind of simple peasant arrangement, directly producing for need. Or that we could keep the King’s army (ie, modern industrial economies) on the road, but without monetary incentive or state coercion, simply by doing all the work necessary for free, including the work of figuring out – by trial and error, and by means other than money, perhaps less efficient means – how to make economic decisions.

For those who argue that a moneyless modern society is impossible, both those options strike them as ludicrously unfeasible. Socialists and communists on the whole tend to agree with them that the first option is indeed unfeasible, so argue instead for the second. But if the second option strikes most people as unfeasible, then perhaps it’s not too hard to see why. The argument is that it is possible, within our lifetime, to create a society where a majority of its members fully understand and agree with the necessity of keeping the King’s army on the road, and selflessly agree to work, perhaps very hard, towards that end, without direct or selfish incentive. They would set the alarm at 6am in order to be at the factory gates (or office doors) on time for the orderly functioning of the economy, not because they are economically coerced into it, but out of their own free choice and will. That non-socialists find this improbable is hardly to be wondered at. But I wonder whether socialists have given it the full consideration it demands. If you agree, as I do, that such a societal arrangement is indeed possible, it has some direct political and ethical implications.

Breaking the spell

At the present time, we all work under the spell of magic pieces of paper, inscribed with runes and icons, and devote most of our energies every day to looking after Number One – an activity that comes naturally to us and, by the magic of the Invisible Hand previously described, keeps the King’s army on the road too as a bonus. How is it possible to break this spell? Socialists and communists have tended to answer that question in mystical and religious terms. “Material forces” are working in our direction, it is claimed. Technology will save us. It will all come right after the Rapture, the Revolution, say the Millenarians. Those of a more pragmatic, earth-bound frame of mind will see through all this. External material considerations are of course important up to a point, but for the vast majority of us living in the rich countries, at least, that point was reached long ago. The idea that technology will save us is a feeble capitalist myth that socialists should know better than to fall for. As for the Rapture, the pragmatic know full well that tomorrow never comes. Think of the wise barman who had “Free drinks tomorrow!” written above the bar.

No, if you are labouring under a spell of delusion, there is only one way to dispel it, and that is through your own hard work. If you know deep within yourself that a society of goodwill and peace is possible, where people work freely and with good cheer for the common good for no other reason than that is necessary for the prosperity and health of us all, then there is only one thing to do and that is to live your life in accordance with that truth. That does not of course mean refusing your pay cheque. Socialists have to be practical. But they also have to be good propagandists for the cause. Anyone who has been a socialist for even a year or two will surely realise by now that propaganda by the word is, roughly, useless. Talk is cheap and everyone knows it. But propaganda by deed has a power beyond the magic of money. The socialist political project goes much deeper than ideology and party-building. It involves a deep reformation of individual character, a commitment to doing good works in a spirit of comradeship and charity, to care for one’s neighbour as much as oneself. Out of such commitment, it’s feasible that the necessary political and economic changes will come. What is not feasible is that it will happen the other way about.

Socialists have long said that socialism is not just a nice idea, but is a practical possibility. But too many of those who say that only entertain “practical possibility” as itself a nice idea. Socialism is indeed a practical project – but it begins with us, today, in the work we do and the attitude with which we do it. As Maya Angelou said, nothing will work unless you do.

Be anarchist, act communist, embrace markets, smile at hierarchy

For years we have been tormented by ideas and contradictions. Capitalism or socialism? Democracy or leadership? Class struggle or social peace? For or against? What is our “position” on the coming war? Or election? Determinists or not? Materialists or not? Is our being a matter of biology or society? Or perhaps philosophy? And so on and so on endlessly. We gave ourselves much pleasure –and much pain too – thinking endlessly and compulsively about the answers. So much so that, in the end, the thinking itself became as much of a problem as the ostensible one. The problem was not in fact our problem; our problem was the desire for a solution.

What we were doing was not so much use thinking as a tool for dealing with life as trying to fashion an identity out of thought. In other words, we were making a religion. And as we all know, religion is the source of much solace, a good basis for companionship and solidarity – but also the source of much violence and strife.

Let’s take just one of those problems and examine it. The big one for us, and to some extent perhaps it still is, is the question of socialism. Your bloggers met having both recently converted to one of the west’s most important but declining secular churches, Marxist socialism. We had pondered the question, capitalism or socialism? And come up with an answer: socialism.

But is an answer in fact called for? For Marxists, capitalism is a totalising system that comes to embrace the whole world, and calls for a totalitarian response. Capitalism is a total system; it must be replaced by a total system. But outside of the theory, in the real world, this is of course never true. In our own society, as in all previous and present-day societies, you get a bit of both. Future society is hugely unlikely to be any different on this score. There are three basic ways of organising human affairs*.

The first is communism. The defining principle here is, “from each according to ability, to each according to needs”. In other words, if someone wants or needs something, then within the confines of reasonableness, they take it. If you can help them achieve something, then assuming you’re on good terms, why not? They’ll probably do the same for you one day. In other words, communism is how humans organise their affairs when they are hunter-gatherers going on a hunt, or members of a nuclear family, or friends looking out for each other, or workers working together within capitalist offices and factories. Contrary to the prejudice, it works well.

The second is exchange. The defining principle here is equality and fairness. It’s what happens when human individuals or groups come into contact with one another, and want to interact to their mutual benefit, but without then being obliged to enter into more intimate long-term relationships. It’s how humans organise their affairs when they are hunter-gatherers encountering another tribe with whom they want to trade, or when capitalist companies want to acquire raw materials, or when we go shopping. Contrary to the opposing prejudice, it can also work very well.

The third is hierarchy. The defining principle here is one of mutual duties and respect. It’s what happens when human beings are not equal in some way – they differ in wealth, in power, in knowledge, in wisdom – but who nevertheless form long-term relationships with each other and who therefore expect things from each other. It’s how hunter-gatherers pay respect to the wisdom of their elders, how we relate with our teachers, or interact with our bosses and rulers.

Now, there is a prayer, which we first came across in the writings of Kurt Vonnegut, but which is apparently a staple of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it goes like this:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.”

It struck us immediately as something worth remembering, perhaps something clever, perhaps just a piece of homely wisdom. What we didn’t quite realise or appreciate, but do now, is that, like much of what is dismissed as homely wisdom, it is in fact just wisdom, and that learning how to tell the difference between the three things and act on it is a lifetime’s work.

Of course, some questions demand an answer, and the answer is either right or wrong. Then it is a matter of science. But social life rarely submits to such simple analysis. Capitalism or socialism? The answer may well be both, if we have any choice in the matter at all, which we probably don’t. Certainly, making an ideology and an identity out of it will do nothing to further the cause one way or the other, and may well do more to hinder it. This applies quite as much to the Adam Smith Institute as it does to the Socialist Workers Party.

Much more important than such questions is the quality of our being, and this is where the anarchism of our title comes in. Of course, most anarchists play precisely the same game – they make an identity and an ideology out of anarchism. But anarchism should really go much deeper than that. The most important authority to free ourselves from is not the state or capitalism, but the ego. We must free ourselves first from the idols and fetishes we set up in our own minds to rule over us, topple the authoritarian in our head who demands an answer to every social question and problem, face down the child that shies away from whatever it is that’s going on in the world. Because when we are free from all that kind of thing, we’re also free to act – to listen carefully to the person talking to us, for example, then do something to relieve their suffering; to oppose injustice; to face down hierarchies that have outlived their usefulness; to replace capitalism with communism where appropriate; communism with capitalism (or markets at least), where appropriate. We will be free to be anarchist, act communist, embrace markets, and smile at hierarchy.

* This schema is indebted to Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber.

What is “socialist consciousness”?

While Dave was giving his talk to the comrades, I was preparing the following piece for a pamphlet prepared for the party’s summer school – on the theme of “new perspectives on socialism”. I don’t know whether my perspective is really new, but I don’t think I’ve heard the view expressed in quite this way anywhere else.

My unstated assumption in the piece is that socialism is a secular religion, and that for every feature you can find in religious organisation, practice and belief, you can find a more or less exact counterpart in the socialist traditions. I mean this as both criticism and praise, for every aspect of religion itself has a dual character. There is the religion of dogmatism, blind faith, empty ritual, oppression, reaction, propagandism and plain stupidity. There is also the religion that is, as Marx put it, “the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification”.

As with religion, so with socialism (in all the meanings of that term). My idea for the following piece came when I began to wonder what the socialist counterpart was of the concept in the spiritual life variously known as Buddhanature, Big Mind, Zen mind, pu, Krishna consciousness, or Christ consciousness (and I’m sure many others – all rooted in meditation). I’m not entirely sure it has one. But it should do – and there’s an already-existing but somewhat empty concept waiting to do the job…

What is socialist consciousness?

“… socialist consciousness requires workers to experience ‘a process of
complete mental reconstruction. Years of thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour must be overcome . . . the whole ideology of capitalism will be rejected lock, stock and barrel.’ Images of The New Socialist Man come to mind – but socialists do need to think very carefully about this question of what it means to have achieved the necessary consciousness for social liberation.”–Steve Coleman, ‘Impossibilism’

The Socialist Party of Great Britain stands alone among socialists and Marxists in its peculiar insistence on the importance of “socialist consciousness”. Socialism, in this view, is impossible unless and until a majority of the world’s workers undergo a “process of mental reconstruction”. To put it another way, that the inner transformation of individuals is more important than, and logically prior to, any meaningful transformation in the structures and institutions of the outer world. This may be a peculiar point of view, but it is surely the right one. An unaddressed question, however, is precisely what is meant by socialist consciousness and how it is to be achieved.

Steve Coleman, quoting an author in the Socialist Standard, puts his finger on it (see epigraph above). Socialist consciousness is a “process of complete mental reconstruction”, one where years (indeed millennia) of “thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour” are decisively overcome. Socialists must, as Coleman rightly says, “think very carefully” about what all this might mean. In his own essay, Coleman makes the observation and lets the thinking stop there. He doesn’t tell us what socialist consciousness is or how it is to be achieved beyond stating that it is a matter of “understanding” and “desire”, before going on to imply that the task is mostly one of propaganda and education and political organisation. This is perhaps necessary but surely inadequate, as we shall explore below.

Socialism really is impossible
One way of thinking about this is to imagine, for the sake of argument, that “socialist consciousness”, whatever it may be, really is not possible under capitalism, as the Leninists insist. The logical conclusion, if this were so, is that socialism would be impossible too. Grasping this point will help us understand and sympathise with every right-wing and common-sensical objection to socialism we’ve ever heard. To give just the most obvious examples, human nature, as it manifests in capitalist societies, clearly does make socialism an unlikely proposition. Greed and violence really does make stateless abundance and free access improbable ways of organising economies. Revolutions really must end in the establishment of new tyrannies. A party taking power in the name of the workers really would end up having to impose a dictatorship. The SPGB links arms with socialism’s opponents on every point. Having linked arms with our new anti-socialist friends, perhaps we might sit down to consider together what “socialist consciousness” might be, ie, what kind of inner transformation might turn socialism from a “nice idea” into a real practical possibility.

It’s not what you think it is
To the knowledge of this writer, very little has been written, either within or without the party, on what socialist consciousness might mean. A more common conception among Marxists generally is the related idea of “class consciousness”. But by this seems to be meant little more than knowledge or awareness that one is part of a social class. We must all surely know of people who have such awareness, but are nevertheless not socialists. Indeed, there’s no obvious reason why such a class-conscious person might not also be a Tory, depending on their political views and upbringing, precise position in class hierarchies, and so on. Class consciousness is clearly not necessarily much help to us.

Is it, then, a matter of “understanding” or “desire”, as Coleman puts it? The way to see that it is not is to conduct a scientific experiment of our own. Think of a person you know who lays claim to a good understanding of socialist issues – perhaps they’ve read every word of Marx and Engels and Morris and so on – and who has a burning desire for socialism. Now closely watch that person as they conduct themselves in social life. Do they, to use Coleman’s words again, demonstrate by their actions that they have overcome, lock, stock and barrel, impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour? Have they achieved a “complete mental reconstruction”? Have they achieved “the necessary consciousness for social liberation”?

Whether the person you are observing is yourself or your worst enemy doesn’t in the end matter, and in neither case is moral judgement or censure implied. If your subject is the worst arsehole and hypocrite imaginable, he or she is only sharing in the general social madness, and is no doubt nevertheless very nice indeed to their dog. But while we refrain from judging, let us nevertheless continue to observe closely and carefully. Let us see what is there, and think about the implications.

You might see that socialist “understanding” and “desire” has, if anything, made us worse. Our superior understanding alienates us from our fellow workers, and we get frustrated and angry that they can’t see as we do. Our desire for socialism burns to anger at the social injustices we must live with every day, and we turn into monsters of negativity and aggression. Frustration, anger, pride in superior knowledge, alienation from our fellow man, negativity, aggression – are these the characteristics of the “necessary consciousness for social liberation”? Surely not.

If socialist consciousness isn’t then what we think it is or what we desire, what is it? What I would like to suggest is that socialist consciousness is what arises spontaneously and without volition from a total awareness of our situation.

That starts with us as individuals – the exercise I suggested above needs to be continued. Proceed carefully and slowly, for such scientific observation demands great skill and subtlety and patience. Watch and appreciate every aspect of your own consciousness and experience – the thinking and the emotions, and how they feed each other; your desire to be proved right; to do the right thing… and get applause for it; the aggression and irritability; the constant search for gratification and entertainment; your childishness when you don’t get your own way in even the slightest degree; your shyness and desire to assert yourself; your pride in achievement; your desire to go out and change the world, and to curl up in a darkened room and forget the whole thing.

That’s the internal aspect. We hardly need to go into the external aspects when all we have to do is switch on the news. But make this too part of your scientific experiment, your awareness of the world we live in – the world we help to create and sustain everyday by our thoughts and our actions. The wars. The violence. The greed. The stupidity. The ecological destruction. The ugliness. The pettiness. The class struggle.

The SPGB is quite right to insist, against other Marxists, than socialist consciousness does not arise spontaneously out of the class struggle, but rather out of our consciousness of and reflection on the total situation we find ourselves in. This then is our answer to the question in the title. Out of the total awareness of our total situation arises a consciousness adequate to that situation – a direct and immediate consequence of that awareness is that we grow up and become and act as responsible adults in this crazy and immature world.

Those who were hoping for an intellectually satisfying answer to the question might be very disappointed by this anti-climax. But the truth is that the whole question of consciousness is a very tricky one scientifically and philosophically. As a practical matter, however, we can just accept the unsatisfactoriness of it. We may not quite be able to grasp consciousness – let alone socialist consciousness – scientifically or intellectually, but consciousness is the one thing we have good access to and a measure of control over from the inside. So let’s start with what we have – the common inheritance of all humanity – and begin our study of ourselves, from the inside, to see whether the answer to the possibility of socialism doesn’t lie within.

Although we don’t really know what socialist consciousness is, nevertheless “by their fruits ye shall know them”. We know it when we see it. We know it by its signs – friendliness, kindliness, patience, compassion, service, work freely given without expectation of reward, moderation, open mindedness, good heartedness, forgiveness, altruism, sharing, generosity. When socialist consciousness comes into this world, then so too inevitably does socialism.–Stuart