Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Soul of Socialism*


 

Socialism is a very safe word. Its meaning is so vague and undetermined, for the most part, that even the conservative take it upon their lips without trepidation. They speak indulgently of Socialists as erratic and harmless dreamers, lumping together their many different aims and creeds, much as one speaks of all manner of insects as "bugs."

But the truth is that everyone is something of a Socialist, as many of our institutions are purely socialistic. Free schools, for instance, and free libraries (where they really belong to a township of free people and are not the gift of well-meaning but offensive and misguided affluence) are purely socialistic. They exist for the good of all, and are supported by the contributions of all, though there may be some to whom they are of no value and by whom they are not wanted. Never mind, we must have them, for the sense of the community has decided they are good things. If you have no children to be educated and are a hater of books, it is just the same, you must put your hand in your pocket to buy books for your neighbour and educate his children. That surely is pure socialism. Also, it is pure Christianity.

And that brings me to the point that I wish to make, namely, that the Soul of Socialism is love, or Christianity, if you prefer that word. The divers kinds of Socialism are as mushrooms in the morning; they spring up fresh every day, until it seems that every man may be his own prophet in matters pertaining to the common-wealth. Yet all these schemes are alike in aim; they all have for their sole object the betterment of society. However foolish, however wrongheaded, however visionary or even dangerous they may be, we must still credit them nearly always with nobility of purpose and sincerity of intention. They are so many formulŠ for the solution of a difficult problem in the science of life. And though many of them would not solve the perplexing equation for us at all, but would only make matters worse (in all probability), still their disinterested aim must enlist our sympathy, even while we withhold our approval. That is to say, the spirit that prompts them is all right, though the thought that goes to their construction is often so faulty.

For Socialism, in whatever form, is after all the only an ingenious device, for putting in practice the generous impulses of the human heart. Socialistic schemes are just so many contrivances for the carrying out of our nobler purposes. In themselves they cannot directly foster goodness; they can only promote it, by making its path easier. Under right social and industrial conditions it will be easier to be good than it is now, it will be easier for beauty to touch our every-day life; it will be easier for the truth to find us out and cheer us with illumination.

One would not call the constitution of the United States a socialistic document I suppose. And yet it certainly is an instrument invented to facilitate the betterment of mankind in his social state. The American Revolution, like the French Revolution, like the Great Rebellion in England, has no other meaning than that. And the mistake we make in thinking of these movements is in putting our final trust in them, rather than in the spirit of freedom and of love in man which produced them. However great and important these events were, they were, after all, only so many steps in this direction or that. We believe in this country that a democratic form of government is better than older, more primitive forms. It is not, therefore, necessarily the best form. It may be itself but a step to another form still better, which will bring us still more enlightenment and happiness. We must be careful not to make a fetish of it, as our fathers made of monarchy long ago. It is the tendency of conservative minds to respect the settled institution, the traditional ideal. Old institutions and established ideals are, indeed, to be respected, but they are not as much to be respected as the spirit of humanity which begot them. They are only inventions of the mind of man, pondering on some plan to give his soul vent in free and beneficent action. It is our business to maintain and guard them only so long as they prove effective for that, and to relinquish them without regret as soon as we outgrow them and find them hindering our progress or retarding our happiness. We shall have others in their stead, more ample, more adequate, more nearly perfect, and no less worthy of loyalty than they were.

And if we are not to have too great and inflexible a respect for authority and traditional institutions, neither must we be over-confident of the newer plans of social management of our own devising. They, too, we must remember, are only methods or ways of doing things. And the great permanent fact to be remembered and reverenced is the spirit of love which prompted us human creatures from the first. If we are to respect the remembrance of it in those of past ages, surely we must so much more respect it as a living breath in ourselves.

No form of government ever yet devised has been equal to the task of making men perfectly happy. None ever will be. For the simple reason that men are not made happy by our outward conditions alone, but by the inward condition of their hearts as well. And if we pin our faith to this or that outward social institution, we are necessarily disappointed. The more stable the institution, the more quickly does it become insufficient. It remains fixed, but man grows. Let us fancy that some very admirable and sound social reform, like the Single Tax, for instance, could be put in operation. There is no doubt that we should all derive untold benefit from it. We should be freer, happier, and saner as a people than we have ever been. But we should still be far from being perfectly happy, unless we were sedulous in cultivating our spiritual selves, and in giving effectiveness to our best personality. Socialism, in other words, is only an opportunity to live, it is not life. And we must beware of expecting too much from it. Were it once in operation, we should still have our toil and our leisure, our joys and our sorrows, just as we do now. Out toil and our sorrows would be mitigated, we believe; and our joys and our leisure would be more widespread. But the same old problem of the conduct of life would still confront every mortal alive.

It seems to me, then, very evident that while we are giving our energies to the accomplishment of social progress to the realization of Socialism in some form we should be careful to hold hard by the spirit of the matter. Let us be Socialists, by all means, of one kind or another, but let us be loving men first of all. For what we are fighting for in Socialism is only the chance for loving kindness to make itself felt. For whether we call it love or loving kindness or Christianity does not matter, so long as we preserve the spirit itself and make it effective. Only if we call it Christianity, we must take care not to confound it with any formalism of creed or church. For the churches, also, are only social institutions, outward expressions in which various truths have been embodied and, too often, entombed. But Christianity, let us remember, is an attitude of mind, a habit of feeling, a condition of the soul; it is not an institution. And the very gist of Christianity may quite as readily be embodied in Socialism as in any formal church. And Socialism, whenever it appears in any sincere guise, always has an aim in accord with Christianity-it aims at giving more freedom to the spiritual side of man, it aims at putting man's life under such outward conditions that he can practise virtue more easily and find happiness more readily in this life. Christianity blazes the trail for man; Socialism cuts down the tree and makes the road more open and practicable. This is something of what I mean by saying that Christianity is the soul of Socialism, and I don't believe it is very far wrong.


"The Soul of Socialism," from galley proofs for Commercial Advertiser, [n.d.] [back]