‘What the Under-Class Answers to the Most Impressive Phrases of the Upper-Class’ by August Strindberg from Class Struggle. Vol. 3 No. 2. May, 1919.
Society is an invention of the upper class to keep down the lower class.
It is the upper class which bestows authority, patents of nobility, social position; which devises the dictates of morality, the concepts of right conduct, the artificial conscience, which is drilled into the lower class from childhood, so that man living in society cannot without great difficulty distinguish the voice of his natural conscience from the false voices which the upper class may feel disposed to breed in us. The upper class controls all the books that are written, and itself writes all the books to defend its own acts, grants the necessary authority to them, and denies any authority to the books written by the lower class. Is it remarkable, therefore, that the upper class can “refute” everything, have an answer ready for everything? It needs simply to quote its own books, to clear up everything; the other side cannot quote its own books, because they have been declared not valid. Is it surprising that the lower class should so often be unable to make reply, when it has been taught from childhood only the stupid answers to all questions that the upper class has drilled into it?
But the time seems at last to have come, when the lower class no longer answers the catechetical answers taught by the upper class, but is beginning to examine the lies of the upper class. Of course it is impossible for them to have all their answers ready at once, for how could the lower class, which has only recently liberated its thoughts from blind following of authority, succeed in a short time in pulling down what it has taken the upper class a few thousand years to build up? I have here merely managed to gather together a little nosegay of the prettiest questions that I have for twenty years been noticing in the upper-class newspapers — and they can be read there just as well today — for they continue blossoming undisturbed and multiplying from year to year, and if you pull them up by the roots, they always succeed in dropping a seed somewhere, before you throw them into the fire. So, please, look at my specimens! If others will harrow where I have plowed, the whole meadow will soon lie fallow!
PHRASE 1 You, lower-class man, are led only by egotistical motives in all you do, and you wish to overthrow authority merely in order to wield it yourself!
ANSWER 1 You are right, my friend, when you say I am led by egotistical motives, for we all are. But, my dear boy, there are two kinds of egotistical motives: those that are justified, and those that are not justified. The egotistical motives of the lower class are justified, for they ask for justice; the egotistical motives of the upper class are not justified, for they ask injustice. We are therefore in the right in asking that our “egotistical motives” be acted upon at the expense of your “egotistical motives.” As for our desire to overthrow authority merely in order to wield it ourselves, that seems true at once; for there are two kinds of authority: the authority of the upper class, which is a violation of justice, and the authority of the lower class, which is a violation of injustice. We therefore aim to deprive you of the power to violate justice, so that we may have the power to violate injustice! Is that plain? And do you now see that our egotistical aims are justified and that our striving for power is justified? (Aside) Now he’s going to bring up Robespierre, but I’m ready for him!
PHRASE 2 Robespierre…
ANSWER 2 Yes, Robespierre! I know! Robespierre was one of your pupils. For it is you who had given him his so-called training. Could he thrust all that behind him with a single sweep? And his mistakes he learned from you! But I will defend Robespierre. He did violence to injustice! Is that not so? (Aside) Now he will start about the way the Salvation Army was treated in Switzerland.
PHRASE 3 But the Salvation Army in free Switzerland…
ANSWER 3 The Salvation Army violated the freedom Switzerland bestows on her citizens, for the Salvation Army disturbed the peace of home, street, and church! Therefore the Salvation Army was advised to obey the laws of the land or leave the country! Then the Salvation Army violated the laws of the land, and that gave Switzerland the right to meet violence with violence. Is that clear? (Aside) He will now talk about respecting the opinions of others.
PHRASE 4 But in this enlightened time we should all respect the opinions of others.
ANSWER 4 Yes, if the term “the opinions of others” will include the opinions of the lower class. I can therefore only admonish you to carry out your own principle and respect Socialism as the only sensible attempt to unveil all the tricks played by you when society was founded; I must admonish you—for you of the upper class should give us the advantage of your good example—to respect free thought—which will put reason into the structure of your Christianity; to respect the new morality, to respect all worthy strivings, such as peaceable union of nations, self-government of peoples; yes, I must admonish you particularly to respect all expressions of contempt for your contemptible conduct toward the lower class, for to despise contemptible opinions is equivalent to respecting worthy ones, and yet, you ask us to respect that which is contemptible! (Aside) Maybe he will start about “levelling down” now?
PHRASE 5 Your effort, which you call praiseworthy, consists simply in levelling down to your low position, everything that stands above you.
ANSWER 5 If a boy climbs one of the State’s cherry trees, let us say in the Zoo, and sits on a branch, eating cherries, from which point of vantage he spits the pits on me standing under the tree—this boy, to be sure, occupies an elevated position as compared to mine down below;—but if it appear to me that he occupies this position of superiority unjustly, being his elder, I will pull him down from the tree and may give him a sound beating where he needs it most, and no sensible man will rebuke me for this chastisement! Do you get me?
PHRASE 6 That is not an answer to a question, but a poetic simile!
ANSWER 6 It is true that it is a simile, but I hardly expected that it would seem poetic! If it is, it must be your fault for having given me such a poetic bringing-up. But I am ready to try it again — in prose, this time. Your elevated point of view is merely your imagining; if it seems elevated, it is only because you have determined the point of view! But the fact that you fixed it does not necessarily make it elevated. Do you want me to investigate it? (Aside) He surely will not! He will rather talk about tearing down.
PHRASE 7 It is easy enough to tear down, but what will you put in its place?
ANSWER 7 It is not so easy, in the first place, to tear down the structures which it has taken you a few thousand unmolested years to build up. Do you know what they had “to do in order to demolish the Linkoping church tower? Why, they had to blast it with — hm! — dynamite! In the second place, I remember, of the precepts in the ancient “Building Law,” a very remarkable one on demolitions (B.L., Chap. II, Sec. 2): “If a man build to another’s harm, tear it down, after notifying him of it!” Well, if you will not do the tearing down, we’ll have to see to it! And then, in the third place, there are systems of society so congested, that all they need is to tear them down so that the inhabitants shall “have light and air.” In the fourth place, do not forget the great example in Russia, of how they proceeded with infected towns a few years ago!
PHRASE 8 You are not accurate; it was many years ago!
ANSWER 8 Forgive me, stern sir; what matters it whether it be few or many, if the fact be as indicated! And yet! It would almost seem as if facts were subsidiary in your eyes, and minor matters elevated into positions of importance! The fact remains that they burnt up the infected cities! (Aside) He can’t answer that unless he makes use of his old reply: I deny the fact! Or the other: It’s a lie! Or perhaps this one: That is irrelevant!
PHRASE 9 That is irrelevant! But if you want reforms, reform yourself first!
ANSWER 9 I have answered this Phrase exhaustively in the periodical, Tiden (The Times), No. 154, which appeared 1884, and until you make an exhaustive reply to my answer, I shall not answer again. I shall merely point out that to be of value a reform must cover the entire population: otherwise it’s no reform at all. Have you not a few more Phrases to give exercise to my ingenuity? Please phrase a little about morality!
PHRASE 10 You’ve said it! How is it that all reformers are so immoral, as soon as you put them under the magnifying class? Eh? Answer that if you can!
ANSWER 10 This is caused by two circumstances at least. First, that they are put under the magnifying glass! Try it on yourselves; your blemishes will be just as large! For, (a) it is of the essence of human nature to have defects (be immoral); and, (b) the essence of the magnifying glass is that it magnifies. So the whole thing is based on the application of the magnifying glass. As the law forbids its application to the upper class, it is of course applied only to the lower class! Is that clear?
Second: It may be that in their judgment of the lower class the upper class make use of a different standard than in their own case.
Third: It is possible that morality is not so dreadfully moral, as it is an invention of the upper class, for their own immoral purposes, to keep down the lower class! — Perhaps it is now clear that the lower-class reformers are immoral because of the above, and not for any other reason?
Do you still wish to speak of Zola? Eh? But perhaps there is no need of that, now that he is not as pleasant toward the lower class as we had once hoped!
PHRASE 11 We needn’t quarrel about such things at present; we must take the world as it is, for it will not change; and it is, after all, the best of all worlds.
ANSWER 11 Thank you, sir, thank you, for having brought up that phrase also, for it is perhaps the most important phrase of all. We needn’t quarrel, said the cock in the horse’s stall. No, all you want is to be left at peace, beati possidentes, lucky! to have had first pick! It is quite natural, but not at all nice! I am ready to believe that this world is best for you; and that is why you throw us heaven as a consolation. By right, you should give us an occasional foretaste of your delectable heaven, so that we might lose our love for this best of all worlds, but, so long as you do not do that, we must believe that this world is a rather poor sort for us. Of course, we have meanwhile developed a faint hope that it may become better, for all of us, but we shall probably have to wait until you gentlemen have gone to heaven! (Aside) I am surprised he has not yet said anything about envy!
PHRASE 550 You are merely envious, that’s what’s troubling you!
ANSWER 550 Envy is one of the nasty names the upper class gives to the sense of justice.
PHRASE 678 Brighten the corner where you are, etc.
ANSWER 678 If you have one to brighten, yes.
PHRASE 1290 Phrase-maker!
ANSWER 1290 Phrase-maker!
(Continuing ad infinitum.)
The Class Struggle is considered the first pro-Bolshevik journal in the United States and began in the aftermath of Russia’s February Revolution. A bi-monthly published between May 1917 and November 1919 in New York City by the Socialist Publication Society, its original editors were Ludwig Lore, Louis B. Boudin, and Louis C. Fraina. The Class Struggle became the primary English-language paper of the Socialist Party’s left wing and emerging Communist movement. Its aim was also to document the tremendous debates happening within the world Socialist movement and its pages are a veritable archive of important works. A major journal in the history of the US left. Its last issue was published by the Communist Labor Party of America.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/class-struggle/v3n2may1919.pdf