The Essence of Socialism and the Rise of Totalitarianism

Socialism, by definition, attempts to manage society in all its aspects, and in order to create the ideal it seeks to embody, it must necessarily control the actions of the individual members of the society.  These individual members become essentially simply cogs in the machinery of socialist governance, and their individuality must be suppressed in order to ensure that the ideology of the socialist government can be fully implemented.  As socialism moves towards a more perfect realisation, it necessarily moves away from the democratic forms which need a degree of individual liberty, and thus, we see the rise of totalitarianism result from a period in which socialism has been developing.  The ideal of liberty is discarded, and even the ideal of equality, possibly subject to continued lip service, falls as a ruling elite takes charge of the society in the name of the mass of the people.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “Totalitarianism of some kind seems indeed to be the natural, almost inevitable destiny, at any rate the extreme and fullest outcome of Socialism or, more generally, of the collectivist idea and impulse.  For the essence of Socialism, its justifying ideal, is the governance and strict organisation of the total life of the society as a whole and in detail by its own conscious reason and will for the best good and common interest of all, eliminating exploitation by individual or class, removing internal competition, haphazard confusion and waste, enforcing and perfecting coordination, assuring the best functioning and a sufficient life for all.  If a democratic polity and machinery best assure such a working, as was thought at first, it is this that will be chosen and the result will be Social Democracy.  That ideal still holds sway in northern Europe and it may there yet have a chance of proving that a successful collectivist rationalisation of society is quite possible.  But if a non-democratic polity and machinery are found to serve the purpose better, then there is nothing inherently sacrosanct for the collectivist mind in the democratic ideal; it can be thrown on the rubbish-heap where so many other exploded sanctities have gone.  Russian communism so discarded with contempt democratic liberty and attempted for a time to substitute for the democratic machine a new sovietic structure, but it has preserved the ideal of a proletarian equality for all in a classless society.  Still its spirit is rigorous totalitarianism on the basis of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which amounts in fact to the dictatorship of the Communist party in the name or on behalf of the proletariate.  Non-proletarian totalitarianism goes farther and discards democratic equality no less than democratic liberty; it preserves classes — for a time only, it may be, — but as a means of social functioning, not as a scale of superiority or a hierarchic order.  Rationalisation is no longer the turn; its place is taken by revolutionary mysticism which seems to be the present drive of the Time Spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 19, The Curve of the Rational Age, pp. 204-205

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Fraternity as an Organizing Principle of Society Fails Without Liberty and Equality

The watchwords of the French Revolution, “liberty, equality, fraternity” embody three principles which together provide guidance for the development of human society.  Each has been attempted to some degree in a sort of isolation from the others, and as a result have led to failure in achieving the long-term goal of a harmonious and progressive human society.  Fraternity is the most recent term to have its place in the sun, as the ideals of liberty and equality have been virtually discarded, their weaknesses exposed.  If we follow the line of development of the first two, the idea of fraternity will be tried to the exclusion of the others.

Sri Aurobindo comments:  “But if both equality and liberty disappear from the human scene, there is left only one member of the democratic trinity, brotherhood or, as it is now called, comradeship, that has some chance of survival as part of the social basis.  This is because it seems to square better with the spirit of collectivism; we see accordingly the idea of it if not the fact still insisted on in the new social systems, even those in which both liberty and equality are discarded as noxious democratic chimeras.  But comradeship without liberty and equality can be nothing more than the like association of all — individuals, functional classes, guilds, syndicates, soviets or any other units — in common service to the life of the nation under the absolute control of the collectivist State.  The only liberty left at the end would be the “freedom” to serve the community under the rigorous direction of the State authority; the only equality would be an association of all alike in a Spartan or Roman spirit of civic service with perhaps a like status, theoretically equal at least for all functions; the only brotherhood would be the sense of comradeship in devoted dedication to the organised social Self, the State.  In fact the democratic trinity, stripped of its godhead, would fade out of existence; the collectivist ideal can very well do without them, for none of them belong to its grain and very substance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 19, The Curve of the Rational Age, pp. 203-204

The Failings of Equality as a Principle for the Organisation and Functioning of Society

There are many forms of potential equality in society.  The first of these is the equality of all citizens to exercise their franchise to vote into or out of power those who govern the society in a modern democracy.  This however does not resolve the inherited and systemically supported inequality of wealth, power, connections, education and access and the results that flow therefrom.   We may observe that even the quality of the access to the vote is not universal or truly equal.  In the USA, some voters get fast, easy, local access to the voting franchise, while others are subjected to costly obstacles in registering to vote, and then are in many cases subjected to obsolete machines shortage of polling places or long distances that discourage those voters who have a financial handicap, which makes the system of voting a financial hardship for them.

An individual, out of a feeling of “getting what is owed to him” will favor equality as a concept with the underlying egoistic motive to ensure he gets his “fair share” of the results.  Yet once the concept of equality makes its way to the governing power of the State, it must inevitably work to reduce or remove the individualistic basis and thus, the idea of equality is used by the ego to offset the extremes of the practice of individual liberty without concern for the needs of others or of the shared commons of the society.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “It is the individual who demands liberty for himself, a free movement for his mind, life, will, action; the collectivist trend and the State idea have rather the opposite tendency, they are self-compelled to take up more and more the compulsory management and control of the mind, life, will, action of the community — and the individual’s as part of it — until personal liberty is pressed out of existence.  But similarly it is the individual who demands for himself equality with all others; when a class demands, it is still the individual multiplied claiming for himself and all who are of his own grade, political or economic status an equal place, privilege or opportunity with those who have acquired or inherited a superiority of status.”

“…in the end the discovery cannot fail to be made that an artificial equality has also its irrationalities, its contradictions of the collective good, its injustices even and its costly violations of the truth of Nature.  Equality like individualistic liberty may turn out to be not a panacea but an obstacle in the way of the best management and control of life by the collective reason and will of the community.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 19, The Curve of the Rational Age, pp. 202-203

Weaknesses and Limitations of Socialism as the Model for Human Society

The idea of liberty, when taken to its extreme position of ultimate individualism, leads to serious problems in the formation of society, many of which are obvious when we look around us today in the world.  Income inequality, unequal access to resources, the determination of rules and regulations by a powerful elite who have gathered to themselves the wealth of the world, all are signs of the failure of individualism when it goes unchecked.

The idea of socialism attempts to shift from the idea of liberty of the individual to the concept of equality within society.  This may provide some kind of balancing effect for the extremes of individualism, but it remains hard, if not impossible, to fully implement in a world indoctrinated into the concept of individualism.  Today we hear the voices of those in power in the government crying that their opponents are “socialists” which is intended to convey a strongly pejorative meaning.  We hear people claiming to be “democratic socialists” who are hoping to convey a moderate position vis a vis the demands of liberty with the requirements of equality.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  Democratic socialism “assures us that it will combine some kind of individual freedom, a limited but all the more true and rational freedom, with the rigours of the collectivist idea.  But it is evidently these rigours to which things must tend if the collectivist idea is to prevail and not to stop short and falter in the middle of its course.  If it proves itself thus wanting in logic and courage, it may very well be that it will speedily or in the end be destroyed by the foreign element it tolerates and perish without having sounded its own possibilities.  …  But even at its best the collectivist idea contains several fallacies inconsistent with the real facts of human life and nature.  And just as the idea of individualistic democracy found itself before long in difficulties on that account because of the disparity between life’s facts and the mind’s idea, difficulties that have led up to its discredit and approaching overthrow, the idea of collectivist democracy too may well find itself before long in difficulties that must lead to its discredit and eventual replacement by a third stage of the inevitable progression.  Liberty protected by a State in which all are politically equal, was the idea that individualistic democracy attempted to elaborate.  Equality, social and political equality enforced through a perfect and careful order by a State which is the organised will of the whole community, is the idea on which socialistic democracy stakes its future.  If that too fails to make good, the rational and democratic Idea may fall back upon a third form of society founding an essential rather than formal liberty and equality upon fraternal comradeship in a free community, the ideal of intellectual as of spiritual Anarchism.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 19, The Curve of the Rational Age, pp. 201-202

The Rationale, Basis and Development of the Idea of Socialism

The watchwords of the French Revolution, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” each represent an essential aspect of the social life of humanity in its evolutionary development.  The concept of liberty arises first as the mental power emerges from the vital infrarational existence.  This leads eventually to an age of individualism and the idea of either representative or direct democracy in which the individual has the opportunity to participate in the direction of the society.  At some point however, unbridled individualism leads to severe imbalance such as we see in today’s world, where 1% of the world’s people have control of as much in assets as some 40% or more of the rest of the people of the world.  This creates the circumstance for the second term of the French Revolution, “Equality” to have its chance.  Capitalism is the economic model of the individualistic age.  Socialism is the economic model of the age of Equality.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Socialism, labouring under the disadvantageous accident of its birth in a revolt against capitalism, an uprising against the rule of the successful bourgeois and the plutocrat, has been compelled to work itself out by a war of classes.  And, worse still, it has started from an industrialised social system and itself taken on at the beginning a purely industrial and economic appearance.  There are accidents that disfigure its true nature.  Its true nature, its real justification is the attempt of the human reason to carry on the rational ordering of society to its fulfilment, its will to get rid of this great parasitical excrescence of unbridled competition, this giant obstacle to any decent ideal or practice of human living.  Socialism sets out to replace a system of organised economic battle by an organised order and peace.  This can no longer be done on the old lines, an artificial or inherited inequality brought about by the denial of equal opportunity and justified by the affirmation of that injustice and its result as an eternal law of society and of Nature.  That is a falsehood which the reason of man will no longer permit.  Neither can it be done, it seems, on the basis of individual liberty; for that has broken down in the practice.  Socialism therefore must do away with the democratic basis of individual liberty, even if it professes to respect it or to be marching towards a more rational freedom.  It shifts at first the fundamental emphasis to other ideas and fruits of the democratic ideal, and it leads by this transference of stress to a radical change in the basic principle of a rational society.  Equality, not a political only, but a perfect social equality, is to be the basis.  There is to be equality of opportunity for all, but also of status for all, for without the last the first cannot be secured; even if it were established, it could not endure.  This equality again is impossible if personal, or at least inherited right in property is to exist, and therefore socialism abolishes — except at best on a small scale — the right of personal property as it is now understood and makes war on the hereditary principle.”

When it denies the individual right to decide and control any of the property, socialism starts down a path of community ownership, management and control of all assets and decisions with respect to their use.    “For so only can the collective reason and intelligent will of the race overcome the egoism of individualistic life and bring about a perfect principle and rational order of society in a harmonious world.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 19, The Curve of the Rational Age, pp. 200-201

Benefits and Failures of the Individualistic Age

As the evolutionary cycle encourages the growth of the mental consciousness, we have seen the emergence of the rational intellect, first in a relatively small group of individuals, and later, through the proliferation of universal education, to the mass of humanity.  Humanity is being trained to awaken and use the mental consciousness and is thereby beginning to gain some power to eventually guide and control the vital being of man.  The object for most individuals remains the satisfaction of vital desires, the acquisition of power, wealth and ease of life.  The mental power, as it emerges into the mass of humanity, does not tend to reach its absolute heights, but creates rather a somewhat shallow but wide mental layer that colours all of the daily life in society.  The unequal development of this power, however, exacerbates inequality in the society and creates a class of those that have power and wealth, and a class of those who do not.

Sri Aurobindo explains:  “Democracy and its panacea of education and freedom have certainly done something for the race.  To begin with, the people are, for the first time in the historical period of history, erect, active and alive, and where there is life, there is always a hope of better things.  Again, some kind of knowledge and with it some kind of active intelligence based on knowledge and strengthened by the habit of being called on to judge and decide between conflicting issues and opinions in all sorts of matters have been much more generalised than was formerly possible.  Men are becoming progressively trained to use their minds, to apply intelligence to life, and that is a great gain.  If they have not yet learned to think for themselves or to think soundly, clearly and rightly, they are at least more able now to choose with some kind of initial intelligence, however imperfect as yet it may be, the thought they shall accept and the rule they shall follow.  Equal educational equipment and equal opportunity of life have by no means been acquired; but there is a much greater equalisation than was at all possible in former states of society.  But here a new and enormous defect has revealed itself which is proving fatal to the social idea which engendered it.  For given even perfect equality of educational and other opportunity, — and that does not yet really exist and cannot in the individualistic state of society, — to what purpose or in what manner is the opportunity likely to be used?  Man, the half infrarational being, demands three things for his satisfaction, power, if he can have it, but at any rate the use and reward of his faculties and the enjoyment of his desires.  In the old societies the possibility of these could be secured by him to a certain extent according to his birth, his fixed status and the use of his capacity within the limits of his hereditary status.  That basis once removed and no proper substitute provided, the same ends can only be secured by success in a scramble for the one power left, the power of wealth.  Accordingly, instead of a harmoniously ordered society there has been developed a huge organised competitive system, a frantically rapid and one-sided development of industrialism and, under the garb of democracy, an increasing plutocratic tendency that shocks by its ostentatious grossness and the magnitudes of its gulfs and distances.  These have been the last results of the individualistic ideal and its democratic machinery, the initial bankruptcies of the rational age.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 19, The Curve of the Rational Age, pp. 199-200

The Need, the Requirements and the Failings of Universal Education

The rational intellect has not yet succeeded in overcoming the power of the infrarational vital nature, and thus, we see the reason at the mercy of the vital impulses, instincts and desires.  At the same time, the power of the mental action to influence the physical and vital existence continues to grow.  The unequal access to the power of the rational intellect leads society to develop an unequal command of power and privilege, with the mass of people manipulated and controlled by a small elite who harness this power.  When we recognize the deficiency, the solution which arises is one which we have seen tried in modern society over the recent years — universal education.  The idea that every child should be given access to a quality education as a means of developing the society along more rational lines has led to the extensive development of public school systems and support for education in general.  And yet, we continue to see failures occasioned by both the inadequacy of the actual education provided and unequal access to quality education, which indeed further exacerbates the general inequality in the society and embeds that inequality at a systemic level.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…a rational education means necessarily three things, first, to teach men how to observe and know rightly the facts on which they have to form a judgment; secondly, to train them to think fruitfully and soundly; thirdly, to fit them to use their knowledge and their thought effectively for their own and the common good.  Capacity of observation and knowledge, capacity of intelligence and judgment, capacity of action and high character are required for the citizenship of a rational order of society; a general deficiency in any of these difficult requisites is a sure source of failure.  Unfortunately, — even if we suppose that any training made available to the millions can ever be of this rare character, — the actual education given in the most advanced countries has not had the least relation to these necessities.  And just as the first defects and failures of democracy have given occasion to the enemy to blaspheme and to vaunt the superiority or even the quite imaginary perfection of the ideal past, so also the first defects of its great remedy, education, have led many superior minds to deny the efficacy of education and its power to transform the human mind and driven them to condemn the democratic ideal as an exploded fiction.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 19, The Curve of the Rational Age, pp. 198-199