The Search for a Just Society Part 14



GEORGE RONALD                       1989





Chapter 26: Where Do We Go From Here?

The human race is rightly proud of its achievements in the arts and sciences. How the human spirit is raised by the beauty of music, painting, architecture, sculpture, literature, the theatre – all the arts and crafts in their variety and cultural diversity! So too is the mind expanded by contemplation of advances in science and technology, especially in the last two centuries.

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty!

Shakespeare, Hamlet

There is less pride, however, in achievements in political, social, and economic relationships, in large part because of the shock and horror of events in the 20th century when apparently strong and civilized nations descended to the most barbaric behaviour. It has been a principal purpose of first two parts of this book to draw attention to some of man’s achievements in these fields and, while acknowledging the many failures, to show that here too there is much which merits our pride. The just society has by no means been achieved, but slowly over time, there has been considerable progress in the right direction.

Although there is widespread scepticism today about the value of religion, especially in Western society, there is undeniable historical evidence that much of what has been achieved in moving towards the just society should be attributed to the direct or indirect impact of the world’s great religions. They have immensely broadened man’s vision of the universe and provided a sense of meaning, purpose and direction to life, encompassing such themes as the brotherhood of man and noble ethical standards of behaviour and thought. Undoubtedly this positive influence has been obscured because religious institutions have frequently led communities in directions which were contrary to their own principles and teachings; as a result some of the most terrible events in human history have been attributable to religion. Nevertheless, the vision and principles which the great religions have brought are never entirely forgotten, and they have served as a standard by which people instinctively judge the behaviour of individuals and communities.

Though civilizations were frequently brutal and cruel, they produced the first examples of themes essential to the just society. The great empires of the past (most notably those of China and Rome) gave proof of the benefits that flow from the maintenance of peace over a long period of time and over large areas. Ancient Greece provides an example of what can be achieved in a relatively free society where public issues can be openly discussed and a significant part of the population has some role in affairs of state. The revolt of Spartacus and the slaves of Rome was a milestone in the evolution of the collective consciousness of civilization. It is true that slavery would continue to be a recurring feature of civilization for another 2000 years, but it would be associated with a sense of unease. There was an unspoken awareness, sometimes weak, often fearful, but always there, that society could not be truly stable, peaceful and fruitful whilst it was built on the denial of the most basic freedoms to a part of the population. Similarly, the revolt of the Jews against the heavy-handed rule of Rome, though unsuccessful, showed that in the long run peace involves giving all peoples a right to express themselves freely through their own culture, a right to self-determination.

Slowly, over the centuries, man’s consciousness of the idea of the just society and its basic requirements evolved. Then quite suddenly at the beginning of the 19th century the pace began to quicken, in step with technological innovations which made possible a great increase in the material wealth of mankind and the linking together of all communities into one world society. Progress towards a more just society was made on a series of interconnected fronts.

Political and social equality was the first. In the perspective of history, perhaps the most impressive advance will prove to have been the voluntary and almost total abolition of slavery, after thousands of years when nearly every major society considered it essential to the well-being of civilization. The widespread emergence of the national state, in which people are able to live according to their own culture and free of alien rule, took mankind another step forward. Of great significance, too, has been the replacement of authoritarian forms of government in many parts of the world with those that are constitutional and democratic, where ordinary people are not treated as children but are given an opportunity to participate in the management of their own public affairs. The growth of constitutional government has had reverberations even in countries where authoritarian forms of government remain, in the sense that these are increasingly sensitive about appearing, in the view of world opinion, to be oppressive and acting against the interest of their people, especially with regard to such issues as human rights.

The second ‘front’ where the pace of advance towards the just society has quickened in the last two centuries concerns elimination of poverty and a move towards greater equality in the distribution of material resources and services. These achievements in the economic sphere have come about partly as a result of a vast increase in total wealth, benefiting much of the world population, and partly as a result of the conscious effort of various movements – trade unions, cooperatives, socialism and the welfare state – to ensure greater economic justice and equal opportunity.

The conduct of international relations is the third arena where there has been considerable progress. International organizations have been established with the goal of bringing about world peace through such procedures as agreements to observe law in relations between states, collective security, disarmament, mediation of disputes, and negotiation of armistices between warring powers. Nations have taken steps to coordinate their policies concerning a whole range of economic and social fields for the benefit of all, and in particular to give financial and technical assistance to those countries that are economically less well off. For the first time in history there has been formed an international civil service, whose loyalty and outlook is governed  to some degree at least by concern for the interest of all the nations of the world, not just that of their own countries. A multitude of non-governmental organizations, some with the highest professional and technical qualifications, have mobilized public support both to urge official bodies to maintain and increase levels of international cooperation, and to provide them with supplementary assistance. One of the greatest successes of the non-governmental organizations has been the development of a growing consciousness of and interest in the protection of basic human rights around the world.

Great as has been this progress toward the just society, there can be no question that far more has to be done, and done quickly, if there is not to be disaster on an unprecedented scale. In the political field the movement towards national self-determination, although nearly complete, has left a few areas where there is still enormous resentment against what is considered alien rule. In such situations, a sullen population will often give passive support to a passionate minority who engage in terrorism to publicize their feelings. Many nations which have achieved independence have allowed legitimate patriotism to become corrupted by greed and prejudice into a myopic chauvinism, leading to unnecessary conflict with internal minorities and external neighbours. Impressive as has been the advance of constitutional government, the majority of nations in the world still live under authoritarian forms of government, and many of those that are formally democratic are hampered by large-scale corruption and deep internal divisions. In some cases government has lost the power to maintain even minimal law and order, and the armed gangster rules the streets. Though democracy is undoubtedly an advance over autocracy, even the most advanced and well-established of democracies suffer from characteristics which detract from the well-being of their own people, not to speak of the well-being of the peoples of other nations. In particular there is a general tendency to a short-term perspective (i.e. a focus on the next election) and to promote sectional interest as a way of obtaining office. Though the foreign policy of the democracies is to some degree influenced by long-term ethical considerations, the major motivation is still short-term ruthless self-interest, and is often morally indistinguishable from the foreign policy of dictatorial governments.

These political failures are often linked to immense social and economic problems. Democracy does not easily survive today in conditions where there are large disparities in economic wealth within a nation. This is the case in many Third World nations, which despite all efforts are becoming poorer in relation to the rich countries. One aspect of the problem in these countries is a rapidly growing population amongst whom a virtually static level of resources has to be distributed. Another is the growing unwillingness of the rich countries to make the sacrifices necessary to help them, because of perceived failures of assistance given in the past, and, more important, increased concern for their own problems: high levels of unemployment, inflation, wastage of resources, pollution, and all the side effects of unadulterated materialism. The latter include widespread alcoholism and drug addiction, increased crime, and the breakdown of a sense of public duty and responsibility. Such symptoms of materialism are common to capitalist and socialist countries alike.

These political, social and economic problems come to a head on the international stage where the greatest failure of our time has been the continuation of armed conflict between nations despite the establishment of the United Nations. In the last year or two there has been a distinct cooling of international tensions, mainly as a consequence of improved relations between the two superpowers. Several wars have been stopped and there are better prospects for an end to the armaments race than at any time since 1945. Nevertheless, it should be cautioned that the foundations of the present détente are still far from firm. Until these foundations are permanently strengthened there will remain real risk of catastrophe on an unprecedented scale, either from conflict between the superpowers, accidental or otherwise, or as a result of the actions of the dozen or so other powers that have or may have access to weapons of mass destruction.

To conclude, humanity today faces challenges greater in magnitude and complexity than at any time since the beginning of civilization. Perhaps in the short run, with luck and good sense, we have a chance of muddling through and avoiding major disaster. In the long run, however, pragmatic muddling through in the traditional political fashion is not likely to be enough. The end result at best may be changes which are too modest and too late. There is a clear need to start thinking about a more thorough-going response to the great challenges – a response which will be needed over the long haul. The question is not just one of simple survival but of moving forward to a civilization which is prosperous and enlightened enough to provide every human being with the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. What is needed is a revival of that movement of progressive forces which has achieved so much in the past but which is now divided, directionless, and lacking in power because its supporters have dropped away out of weariness, disillusionment, and vulnerability to the seductive call of the materialistic philosophy which focuses on short-term selfish interest. Such a revival would involve:

  1. A unification of progressive forces, especially between those that put most emphasis on a free society with a democratic form of government and those which give the highest priority to the removal of the obstacles to human development that come from extremes of wealth and poverty;
  2. A comprehensive programme which will give direction to the progressive movement and will respond to the major issues which face mankind today; and
  3. A great awakening of popular enthusiasm and sustained commitment for such a programme, to provide the necessary power for its goals to be reached.


How can all this be achieved? The summary review of the most well-known progressive movements of the day in Part II of this book suggests that no one of them alone is able to fulfil all these requirements. There remain two alternatives. One is the development of some new movement, perhaps a syncretic philosophy, which will pull together all that is best from the movements of the past. Experience suggests that this will not work. It would no doubt involve, if taken seriously, some sort of international committee, which even with the best will in the world would take perhaps decades to come to a conclusion. And such a conclusion (if one were ever reached) would almost certainly represent a patched-together compromise representing the lowest common denominator by the time all the political bargaining had finished. This is not the type of programme likely to provide a real answer, or to arouse the long-term enthusiasm and commitment of a large part of the world’s population.

That leaves the second alternative, which is to review the possibilities of progressive movements which have not so far been discussed. In taking this course the one movement which must surely attract immediate attention is the Bahá’í Faith. At first sight this may seem a strange choice, in view of the small number of its followers (about 4.7 million worldwide), its comparative obscurity until recently, and the fact that religion still has negative connotations for many. The suggestion is not made lightly, however; it is based on several reasons which it is believed have weight. Quite apart from the general point noted earlier that religion in its pure form has been the key progressive force in history, there are several specific aspects of the Bahá’í Faith which are relevant in this context. These include the comprehensiveness of its progressive approach to all the main problems which face mankind today, the great diversity of its adherents who are drawn from very nearly every nation in the world, and the fact that it is the oldest and most well-established movement for world peace and unity. In an age of instant communication the present small number of Bahá’ís is not necessarily a handicap. A movement in tune with the times cannot but attract millions when the issues become clear. In the light of these thoughts this book would be incomplete without a brief review of the Bahá’í Faith and its credentials as a progressive movement.

The Bahá’í method is not shrill and demanding; rather, it is in the manner of a gift offered to a king. In looking at this religion the peoples of the world are invited to strive for intellectual integrity, to make an independent and objective investigation to see if it makes sense and if it is the answer to the problems of the world. Unfettered investigation means being detached from views propagated by normal authority: tradition, the family, institutions. It means working matters out for oneself with all the tools available: reason, observation, intuition, meditation and prayer.

It has to be recognized that this is indeed a difficult task and requires a great deal of concentration, especially to escape from the prison of time and place, for we are all deeply affected by the culture in which we have been raised. One example of such bias is the present-day common view of communism in the capitalist states, and vice-versa. Another is extreme scepticism about religion in a materialistic society.

The brief review of the Bahá’í Faith which follows has four parts. First, there is an examination of its broad vision of the universe to see whether this is likely to motivate change and improvement in society. Second, there is a summary of the Faith’s programme of action as applied under present conditions to see if it is a practical approach to the building of a just society. Next there is a brief sketch of the long-term goal of the Faith, which is a new world society. Finally there is a short overview of the history of the Bahá’í community, to see what effect the Faith has on ordinary men and women in practice and whether this offers hope for the future.

In making this review some use will be made of quotations from the Bahá’í Writings. Many of these are from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), the Founder-Prophet of the Bahá’í Faith. Others are from the writings of Bahá’u’lláh’s eldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921), whom He appointed to succeed Him as supreme guide of the Bahá’í community; and from Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1896-1957), ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s grandson whom He in turn appointed as His successor to the leadership of the Faith, with the title of Guardian. Following the death of Shoghi Effendi the world Bahá’í community has been directed by the Universal House of Justice, a world assembly elected by the international community every five years by secret ballot.

Chapter 27: The Big Picture

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