“Omnia aliundo: omnia alio.”

Historians and ethnologists give us the assurance that in some former days property was held in common; and the distribution of the products of the soil and of the forest was made under social rules or customs, of which there are no counterparts to-day in what are called civilized countries. Herds of cattle constituted the principal wealth.

At a later period, the distribution of the same products was made under certain communistic conditions as to property; but the proportion gained by each person in the community was fixed according to his status. Contracts were made, it is true, but nothing in the nature of the modern system of contract, affecting labor as well as commodities, was generally known.

The protective or paternal system gave the only assurance of a sufficiency of food, shelter, and clothing to those who were members of a community in which property may indeed have been held in common; it does not, however, appear that there was any greater equality in the enjoyment of the means of subsistence or in the conditions of shelter than there is now, even though the land was wholly or in part common property.

Now the essential point conducive to general prosperity is that a communistic system shall apply to the distribution of the products of each season or year; and by communistic system is intended a system in which the enjoyment of the means of subsistence tends constantly to equality and sufficiency. This is the aim of modern progress, and the tendency of modern communism.

If community of property fails to bring about communism in subsistence, it is of little avail, and hardly merits consideration; the world is always within less than one year of starvation, and hunger cannot wait.

It does not appear that under the ancient system there was anything approaching equality of conditions between different communes, comparing one with another; but different districts in which property was held in common were nevertheless subjected to famine and pestilence, which desolated one section while another enjoyed abundance.

The great communists of recent times have taken little cognizance of places, but have aimed at a universal distribution and enjoyment of the products of different places, whether on one continent or the other.

Many causes have led to the great change of method under which common distribution is now being made, by which greater abundance and prosperity are assured to the masses of the people; and many applications of science have led to the possibility of the modern communistic system. Among these beneficent inventions there has been no other more effective instrument for abating oppression and for promoting justice among men than that of gunpowder. Prior to this, spoliation and slavery were the rule, an equitable division of wealth measured by service the exception: aristocracies and tyrants, under various names and orders, compelled service without rendering an equivalent. Without gunpowder even the Reformation would have been impossible, and the true democracy of Christianity could never have asserted its power. The use of gunpowder made the weak equal to the strong. It destroyed the power of the seigneur, and the superiority of armor and of the sword; it therefore completely altered the conditions of society, and made a true democracy possible. On the other hand, its application to mining made coal and iron abundant, and they prepared the way for modern industry.

But even for a very long time after great changes had happened in the institutions of society, which were brought about by the two discoveries of printing and of gunpowder, the general conditions of life remained very arduous, and great masses of the people compassed the barest subsistence or suffered want, both in Europe and in America.

Presently the great communists of the last one hundred years began their useful work. The list is a long one, and the record would require volumes in place of pages. If one who had leisure could write the chapters of which these few memoranda may be considered the preface, a true history of progress in the common enjoyment of a better subsistence might be presented. These chapters would consist of the record of how a few of the great fortunes which have been amassed by the modern methods of banking, of commerce, and of manufactures have been accumulated; the great fortunes themselves being a measure—to be sure, an insufficient one—of the services rendered by those who acquired them. To state how these men have brought about a community of subsistence, which is the material point on which prosperity depends, would be only to recite the application of science to the useful arts.

It would not be worth while to repeat the biography of Watt, and of those who preceded him, by whom steam was first substituted as a motive power. We may, however, measure the great fortune which Arkwright acquired. To him has been attributed one of the two original inventions which have been made in the art of cotton-spinning, the other being the saw-gin of Eli Whitney. In every other respect this art is prehistoric, and every machine now in use, however complex it may be, is but an evolution from a prehistoric type. To Arkwright is to he attributed the original application of an invention alleged to have been made by another, but used by him for evenly extending the strand of cotton in the several processes which precede or accompany its twisting into yarn or thread.

After Arkwright came Cartwright, the inventor of the power-loom; and by their joint inventions, perfected as they have been, both in Europe and in America, by men who have also accumulated great fortunes, the common enjoyment of sufficient clothing has been brought into effect, so that in this country, at least, no one except the willfully idle or the absolutely vicious need be without a supply which will suffice for comfort. The work done by these men can be gauged in some measure by comparing the productive capacity of women who still make cotton fabrics by hand, in the mountains of the Carolinas and Georgia, of Kentucky and Virginia, with that of other women who attend spindles and looms, in New England.

In the Atlanta Exposition there were several of these spinsters and weavers who had been accustomed to the work from their early childhood; and the measure of their labor, represented in coarse cotton cloth, proved to be just the hundredth part of what their Northern sisters, working at the same time but under more favorable conditions in New England, are capable of accomplishing.

It takes one hundred and sixty thousand men, women, and children to make the cotton cloth the use of which is now enjoyed by the people of the United States, who are the best clothed people in the world. If those who do this work were obliged to employ machinery no more effective than the spinning-wheel and the hand-loom, it would require sixteen million persons, continuously employed ten hours a day, to do the necessary work.

The data are not so easily obtained respecting homespun fabrics of wool; but to the great inventors who have applied science to this art may be attributed the advance made toward communism in the abundance of woolen fabrics, in the same manner that we have described regarding cotton.

Passing to another phase of modern communism, without going back to the original inventors who accumulated such vast fortunes in the early processes of manufacturing iron, we may name the great communist of England of the present day, Sir Henry Bessemer; and we may couple with his name that of the great communist of the United States, Cornelius Vanderbilt. The one made the permanent way possible on which food and fuel could be carried in vast quantities without friction or loss; and the other laid or consolidated the permanent ways in this country, by which alone has the vast abundance of our great Western prairies been distributed over this and other lands.

Neither Bessemer nor Vanderbilt could, however, have accomplished the great purposes for which they have lived, had they not been preceded by two great communists, named George Stephenson and Sir Edward Cunard. The former overcame the obstructions of time and distance upon the land, and the latter upon the sea.

With these four have been joined other men, of whom McCormick may be named as an exemplar, — the men who substituted mechanism for muscle, and, while relieving farm life of half its hardship, made many grains of wheat grow where single blades of grass had wasted before; and through whose work vast numbers of people have been fed who else had suffered hunger.

Five greater levelers; five more potent breakers of the images which men have set up in their minds in the past days as the representatives of divine rights; five more beneficent persons, whatever their own conception of their function in life may have been, can hardly be named in all history. They have broken down, or will break down, class distinctions, which mark only a difference of condition rather than any real difference among men; they will cause the idle representatives of the privileged classes to serve a useful purpose in the world, or else take themselves out of the way; they are abating the vested wrongs of ages; they are removing the conditions under which it will hereafter be impossible to collect rent for land which does not mark service rendered; and in the end they may make even the distribution of honor as well as of wealth depend upon service, rather than upon name or heritage.

These men have been, or are, the greatest democrats of their time, and it is possible. that they will make kings and princes, lords and barons, as great anachronisms, and prove them to be as much out of place in Europe, as they would be in this country, where it is impossible, without a derisive smile, to conceive of their existence.

If the first Napoleon lived in this country at this time, the only scope which he could find for his ambition and ability would be in the management of a great railroad line, or in applying gunpowder to use in mining coal and iron, instead of wasting it in war.

And now are coming in a new class of communists, whose names are not yet so well known, but soon will be, — Siemens, Jablockhoff, Brush, and Edison, — who will, following the lead of Faraday and other theorists, again destroy vast amounts of property, previously accumulated with great labor, by rendering it out of date and out of place; and who will substitute their own great fortunes for those by the waste of which progress is marked, waste, we mean, in the sense of becoming useless. These new inventors are those who are applying electricity, and bringing it into subjection to the use of men.

There seems to be a great force or energy, as little comprehended as gravitation; not like gravitation, however, working always vertically, or toward the centre of things, but wandering around loose, until it is tied to a wire, by which it can be carried in any direction, and made to do almost any kind of work. By injecting a few jets of steam over some burning anthracite, and admitting a little air, a great number of gases can be combined to produce heat in a gas engine, at an alleged cost of ten to fifteen cents per thousand cubic feet; and the gas engine, even on a small scale, will give about one horse-power per hour for each pound of coal used. The power of that engine may then be applied to a machine working like a great rotary force-pump, but which, instead of pumping water, pumps something named electricity, — this wandering force which we have so lately tied to a wire. By then interposing a few obstacles in the way of that force, we convert it into light or into power, by means of which we can run our spinning machinery, our looms, our sewing-machines; we can turn the spit or chop the meat; or we can run the plow and do a large portion of our farm work. All this is being done, and the same “gas fuel,” as it is called, also heats the dwelling, cooks the dinner, and in the tailor’s shop makes the goose not only fit to do its work, but serve as a stove at the same time. Moreover, by electricity we can move cars on elevated railway tracks; we can send messages; and although we have not yet found out how to send pictures of ourselves to our friends, a few hundred miles away, over the wire, as we can convey the tones of our voice, yet the time when this will be accomplished is perhaps not far off.

This force will he one of the greatest agents in communism ever yet applied. The power of steam is limited to certain places hence is come the concentration of great numbers of working people in high factories on narrow streets; and the necessity of living near their work has limited the people to dwelling in alleys and slums, under bad conditions. But now that we may dump the coal and make the gas on the margin of the sea or of any navigable river, and may carry the heat, the power, and the light, or give the directions for the work, many miles away, while we may pass rapidly to and fro, in the conduct of our business, upon an elevated railway track, the area of the cities will be greatly enlarged. The upper stories of our high and dangerous manufacturing buildings in the cities will be vacated; broad one or two story factory buildings will be erected in the suburbs (if in Boston, out in that part of the city where the fox, the mink and the muskrat are now the only dwellers). People will be housed on half-acre lots, in their own dwellings, — each a home by itself; and by the practice of this rediscovered method of saving green crops in pits, of which Tacitus makes the first record in history (by him called ensirage, by us called ensilage), two cows may be kept on half an acre, and each household may have its own little dairy, with the centrifugal creamer and churn operated with a part of the electricity sent from the sea-board, and let on by a turn of one tap, while the dinner may he cooked by the turn of another. “Heat, Light, and Power on Tap, and served to Order,” is the notice now given.

In this manner, again, the future communism in easy and well-earned subsistence will be assured by the work of the men of to-day, who are accumulating other great fortunes in establishing electric and gas fuel companies throughout the land.

What may be the end it is difficult to foresee; but perhaps the prophecy of a millennium made by those who preach what is called “the potato gospel” may become as certain as that foreshadowed in the spiritual gospel, — the time when a fair subsistence will be so well assured by the practice of integrity and the exertion of a moderate degree of industry that it will no longer pay to be rich.

It will be observed that the temporary accumulation of capital in the hands of rich men is a matter of small moment in retarding its consumption by the great masses of the common people. There is no such thing as fixed capital. Everything is perishable, and the greatest progress is worked by destructive inventions, which render old forms of buildings and machinery of little or no value. In the mean time, those who have possessed them have consumed only their own subsistence and that of their families; the rest has been used in the service of the common people.

In fact, all capital circulates with more or less speed, and its method of work may be compared in some measure to the electric light, which is accomplished by a retardation of the current. The power of electricity is exerted only by means of an obstruction to its course. In like manner, the circulation of capital is slightly retarded while it is in the possession of a capitalist, and he is thereby enabled to exert a power greater than other men in the general service.

But there are other methods by means of which wealth is distributed. It is an old saying that “it usually takes but three generations from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves.” This was true in olden time in this country. Wealth seldom stayed in one family more than three generations. In these later days it may stay a little longer, because we have in some measure provided better for the education of the sons of rich men than we did formerly, and have in greater degree removed their disabilities, and rendered them capable of making such use of the property devised to them as may enable them to keep it. The power of rich men to impose riches upon their descendants beyond their grand-children has been taken away by law; and it may happen, as the dangers of inflicting the disabilities of wealth upon grandchildren become better understood, that the law will forbid wills which place it out of the power of the parents of the child to divert bequests which are so often only a misfortune.

The protection of spendthrifts by deeds of trust may presently be declared, as the lawyers say, contra bonos mores. When this is accomplished the circulation of capital can no longer be retarded in the hands of one who can neither give any light nor do any work, but who is only a burden to himself and a bore to his friends, if he has any.

But there is another measure of communism which we have not yet considered. There is one form of fixed capital which has been steadily increasing for all time, but which has accumulated more rapidly during the last century than ever before. It is the only kind of capital which has any stability, and the only kind that is of any permanent use in the world. It becomes in a very short time the common property of all, and is therefore one of the most substantial examples of communism which can be cited.

This capital consists in the inventions and discoveries in applied science, — the immaterial capital of the world. The representatives of this work, without whom those who are known as great capitalists would be powerless, are the theorists in science; the men who, having combined the results of observation, first indulge in bold hypotheses, then venture upon experiments, and lastly construct true theories, in accordance with which practical men work out the applications of science to art and industry.

These men are the great instruments for promoting the common good of humanity; and they, together with those who level the ways and remove the material obstructions to commerce by carrying the rails over mountain sides, through tunnels, and across the great plains, or who send ships across the sea, “weaving the web of concord among nations,” are the chosen prophets, the elect among men, who are surely bringing about the solidarity of nations, rendering subsistence easy and certain, and bringing to the people of all lands the common enjoyment of the gifts of the Creator.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.