Sunday, February 12, 2023

A false footing

In 1892 an Australian Christian socialist by the name of William Guthrie Spence gave a speech on the topic of "The Ethics of New Unionism".

He began by noting that the old unionists had rejected the individualism of the past to organise together to improve their wages and conditions. They did not, however, seek reforms outside of their own workplaces.

William Guthrie Spence

Spence wanted the new unionism to go further and to transform the world. In explaining this, Spence revealed himself to be a kind of transitional modernist, in that he mixed together certain more traditional concepts with others that we would recognise today as being modernist.

Like so many other leftists before (and after) him, Spence believed in the perfectibility of human nature:

I take it that the human family is inherently good. I go against that old idea of always crediting our human frailties to original sin. I say that humanity is inherently good if we only let it have a chance to exercise its goodness.

This is an optimistic account, but it leads him into dangerous territory. It allows him to believe that a change of the system in which men live, from a competitive to a cooperative one, will so perfect the nature of man that it will overcome all social ills and usher in a utopia. He does not hold back in expressing this belief:

If I understand anything of the teachings of the founder of Christianity it is that He came to bring heaven upon earth — to set up the kingdom of heaven on earth. I fully believe that we can make this heaven.

...Heaven is an ideal state where we escape from all the ills and sorrows that we experience here. In our present state we see many, very many cases of suffering and of trouble. We can trace its cause and see a way of removing it, and shall we sit idly by and allow the misery to go on? No, a thousand times no. Christ taught men that they could and should bring the kingdom of heaven upon earth. New unionism aims at giving practical effect to that, knowing full well that the inherent good in humanity, if it has an opportunity to expand, will rise, will become practical, and bind the people together.
This is the clearest example I have ever come across of "immanentizing the eschaton" which is defined as an attempt "to bring about utopian conditions in the world, and to effectively create heaven on earth."

This already suggests that Spence's Christianity has been modified by modernist ideas. It is not that Spence is entirely wrong in believing that the conditions people live under affect their behaviour. Nor is he wrong in thinking that Christians might attempt to ameliorate those conditions. But what matters now for Spence is a natural process (evolution) through which humanity acts of itself to create a heaven on earth. It is not far removed from a secular humanism.

When people start to see "humanity" as the significant centre of faith and vehicle of progress, they are likely to prefer a shift toward "higher unities" bringing people to believe in humanity as one larger whole, rather than smaller and localised forms of community. Spence says, for instance,

What is your life or my life worth, unless it has been exercised in doing something to add to the sum of happiness of the human family? Those who are conservative enough to let things run as they are of what use are they to the human family? They retard progress. There are now certain well-defined paths with which you can see the thoughts and actions of reformers are trending. Human energy has hitherto been exercised in a wrong direction. Shall we remove the obstacles and put it in the right direction.

There is no defence here of traditional institutions or ways of life, which now represent the "wrong direction" and are obstacles to be overcome by reformers. The worth of a life is no longer measured by a relationship to God, or service to family or nation, but by adding to the happiness of the entire human family.

His orientation to a single humanity is also expressed when he declares,

We are aiming now at securing an improvement by social and political reforms — and by that means alone a revolution will undoubtedly be effected in time. When I use the word revolution — do not misunderstand me — I mean a quiet one. It will be a change from one condition to the other, which almost deserves the name of “revolution.” I feel certain it will come about steadily and surely and rapidly if we take the proper stand, the only stand — that of common humanity.

He says here that the only stand is that of common humanity. He is consistent, then, when he insists that there should be no distinction of sex:

Women workers will also be included, for the spirit of “new unionism” makes no distinction of sex.
Spence likewise sounds very modern when talking about equality: instead of competition is one of the aims of the New Unionism; giving equality of rights, equality of opportunity, and equality of justice to all men.

I find it particularly interesting that Spence is already, as far back as 1892, expressing something of a technocratic mindset. He argues, for instance, that "In the future things must be done in the mass.'' As we shall see, he also argues for the principle of "efficiency". He is not yet, however, arguing for rule by experts; instead, he wants a landed aristocracy replaced by men of "character, genius and intellect".

In what ways does Spence sound more traditional? Well, his world picture is not yet entirely flat. There is still some sort of vertical hierarchy, of things more noble and more base. He states, for instance, that,
Humanity must, of course, be regarded as part of Nature, and are also influenced by the spirit of evolution. We have been placed at the very apex of the pyramid of created things.
He speaks also of his hopes that if people remove impediments to progress that there will be "an expansion of the good, of the noble, of the best. All these are qualities to be admired in man, and mark the distinction between the higher and lower in humanity." Similarly he later exclaims "The principles underlying this movement are those founded on eternal truth. They aim at giving exercise to the highest and very best qualities of human life and nature."

Spence's version of modernism has managed to withstand a naturalistic logic in which there is no order to creation and no means of distinguishing the high from the low. What Spence does share with the modernists, though, is a rejection of the good within the current order. If evolution is pushing toward heaven on earth, then it is important that reformers remove impediments to progress, which makes it wrong to conserve as a matter of principle. You can see here how politics then develops: there are "progressives" who will push for change in the belief that this will usher in a more perfect world and "conservatives/traditionalists" who are alarmed that the good that exists as part of an inherited tradition will be sacrificed and lost.

There is one final point to be made. In spite of his commitment to humanity as a whole, Spence was still very firmly an ethno-nationalist. As a founder of the Australian Labor Party he wrote:
The party stands for racial purity and racial efficiency — industrially, mentally, morally, and intellectually. It asks the people to set up a high ideal of national character, and hence it stands strongly against any admixture with the white race. True patriotism should be racial.

There is a hint here of the proto-technocratic mindset I wrote about earlier when he uses the phrase "racial efficiency". Spence was not alone among progressives of the time in supporting ethno-nationalism - so too did figures like Alfred Deakin and William Lane. The point I would make is that his overall worldview was unlikely, in the longer run, to support the continuation of an ethno-nationalism.

If you set up as an idea that there is a natural evolution of humanity toward a kingdom of heaven on earth; that conserving tradition impedes this progress; that the meaning of life is to serve the human family; that distinctions, such as those of sex, should not be admitted; and that there should be equality of rights and of opportunity for all men - then it will be difficult in the longer run to defend more particular and parochial inherited identities. 

I noted this already in a post on Alfred Deakin, a future Prime Minister. His biographer, Judith Brett, wrote that,

To him the larger, more unified view was always superior, higher and more evolved, less selfish and closer to the divine purpose than the narrow and parochial...
This is similar to Spence's idea that evolution will bring us ultimately to serve one human family. So how did Deakin justify his ethno-nationalism? Judith Brett believes it was simply left as a contradiction:
Liberal nationalism has an inherent contradiction. It speaks of the universal values of liberty and brotherhood, but it applies them to particular populations. Deakin was well aware of the contradiction: his prayer would be "wide as thy would embrace all living things", "were not this to render it pointless and featureless", and so he narrowed his focus "to my kind, to my race, to my nation, to my blood, and to myself, last and least". A couple of years later he prayed for blessings "for my wife and children, family, country, nation, race and universe".
Future Labor politicians would, predictably, begin to extend the focus. Arthur Calwell in the 1930s, for instance, argued in favour of a greater diversity in the Australian population as a matter of equal opportunity and social justice and this led to the expansion of the migration programme after WWII. Calwell's focus did not extend beyond European migration, but by the late 1960s/early 1970s both Labor and Liberal politicians went full focus and adopted a policy of multiculturalism.

You cannot expect something to survive forever when it exists as an unprincipled exception to the larger worldview that you have adopted. If you want a traditional nation to continue, then your worldview needs to accept that there are things embedded within traditions that represent the good and that are worthy of conserving - and that the project of conserving is not just some reactionary offense against progress to an unlikely utopia.


  1. spence, like many, was barking for barrabas while calling himself Faithful.

  2. I’m always skeptical of people who speak about things like happiness in pseudo-mathematical terms, like “add[ing] to the sum of the happiness of the human family.” It betrays a sloppiness of thinking, or at least an oversimplifying expediency.

    I would argue that merely passive or reactionary stances do not hold as much sway over the human heart, for better or worse, as active principles. Love of people and identity would have to carry not merely a desire to conserve but to nourish, enrich, and expand, at least according to that theory.

    1. "I would argue that merely passive or reactionary stances do not hold as much sway over the human heart, for better or worse, as active principles. Love of people and identity would have to carry not merely a desire to conserve but to nourish, enrich, and expand".

      Yes, I agree. This is a significant point to consider. I think it helps if you conceive of the nation itself as having a higher purpose, for instance, to establish God's peace over a particular realm or, as Solzhenitsyn suggested, to be a unique expression of humanity. But, you are right, it is more a case of wanting to not only conserve, but to add to and develop and bring to a higher level. Apparently, young men in Athens took an oath in which they pledged "My native land I will not leave a diminished heritage but greater and better than when I received it."

    2. I think there’s a risk when you get into utility-based arguments for human lives or institutions. If the purpose of your people is some material end, you open up the way for arguments for destruction of your people when other ways to achieve that material end are forwarded. And, of course, failure is taken much harder. Basically a macrocosmic version of treating regular people like cogs in a machine: in such a scheme, outsourcing or replacement regardless of morality becomes a logical option.

    3. I think there’s a risk when you get into utility-based arguments for human lives or institutions. Yes, that's true. I'm speculating here, as a thought experiment, but my understanding is that in the 1800s it was thought that Anglo-Americans had a special dispensation to spread civilisation across the continent. Maybe this helps to explain the different "parties" within the US. One side upholds this exceptionalism by extolling the virtues of the US ideal and its practical achievement and is very patriotic; the other does not think it has lived up to the original hopes ("the failure is taken much harder" as you put it) and this is thought to reflect badly on Anglo, and later white, American culture, which comes to be thought "exceptional" in a negative sense.

    4. Answering that question would require a more knowledgeable mind than mine, but certainly interesting. I would say there’s definitely some sense, usually rhetorically deployed, that new immigrant groups carry on the vision or ideal just as well (perhaps even better!) than the original stock, a notion obviously deriving from a utility-based approach to group teleology. The “more American than Americans” argument.

  3. Utopianism also envisages society as a sort of machine that can be “configured” by an external source. Rather than a traditional organic society whence life comes from within, utopian societies are the product of inhuman ideologies that take an aspect of reality and absolutise it. Hence , an external source , ie the modern bureaucratic state, engineers society to reflect the vision of a few. Kind regards Tom