Recent Socialist Literature

To spend a week, as the writer has just done, with a batch of new books exclusively on socialism recalls one of the many definitions of a pessimist as “a man who has had to spend several days shut up with an optimist.”

This sustained feeding upon almost any ism would doubtless bring the same reaction. Indeed, an economist who has done some lively tilting against the socialists has said that if he were to dine six successive nights with the judges, business men, bankers, and clever women of his city, and listen to the conventional arguments meant to annihilate socialism, it would drive him from sheer weariness into the ranks of the socialists. He was not thinking of that helpless ignorance which merges anarchist, communist, and socialist into one object of supercilious disapproval. He was thinking rather of those who had read collectivist books; who had informed themselves about the general movement by listening to some of its agitators until the main “absurdities” had become defined. With this leisure-time equipment, the critical task of the superior person is easy and full of entertainment. “They want to destroy private property,” “pay mind and muscle alike,” “make all men equal,” “divide up,” “kill private enterprise,” “make an end of individual liberty,” “ignore nature,” and even do away with the “survival of the fittest.” With these and other phrases the discomfiture of the socialist is complete.

The intelligent socialist, of course, neither asks nor wants any of these things; but it is great fun to create imaginary buffooneries in your opponent. It is an easy use of the faculties, which saves all the worry of securing accurate information. That socialism will “destroy private property ” is oftenest and most confidently said. The charge is false unless made with most important qualifications.

When President Roosevelt urges the withholding by the state of increasing forest and coal areas, he is attacking specific forms of private property. He is saying, “Here are properties open to such dangers, if left to free competition, that the state should extend over them its control.” Many special forms of private property have been destroyed, — as in slaves and toll-roads, — and upon other such forms collectivism makes further attack, because it is believed their social utility is at an end. Neither do they ask to “level down” or “make men equal.” They do not seek to curb personal liberty or cripple “private initiative.” William Morris once told me the reason he was fighting for socialism was to get some real freedom for the English workingman. “They do not know what personal freedom means. Its very sources are choked by our capitalistic system. The fever took me when I discovered that no great art was possible until the people secured liberty and leisure for individual development and variation.”

The inequalities at which these leaders strike are the artificial ones nursed under a property system and strengthened by inheritance laws which produce excesses and anomalies so grotesque in a republic, that the President himself gravely asks for remedies. That socialism, logically applied, would develop evils like loss of liberty, decreased wealth, and hampered individual initiative, is of course a thesis which one may stoutly maintain. There are reasons to fear such ultimate consequences. They are, however, to be viewed strictly as results, which the critic must base on probabilities.

We do not start fair with the collectivists until we stop telling lies about them. Their complaint is frequent and bitter that they always have to begin with a perverted statement of their faith and principles. “In the capitalistic press,” says one of them, “we are handicapped by opponents who insist upon identifying what we want with what they think will happen if we get it,” This is especially true of the socialist attitude toward private property.

It is one of the great services of this school to show how powerfully the process of wealthmaking influences our entire social life,—our religion, politics, education, customs, and manners. In the South every one of these was moulded by the kind of industry carried on there before the war with slave property. Though far more complicated, every phase of life in the North has been influenced by the forms of business into which our greatest strength has gone. For example, the economic struggle to organize monopoly privilege has almost exclusively determined the character of our politics. That we have now learned this belated lesson, is perhaps our surest hope of reform. This view does not exclude other influences. It insists that the economic forces have been immeasurably stronger over us than we have been willing to admit. It is for this reason that socialists seem always to be dealing with questions of property and its distribution. For this reason, unfair censors will have it that they are “mere materialists,” when the most obvious of facts is that no world movement now carries with it a more impressive idealism.

The more recent literature is so informed by this spirit that one seems to be dealing with a religion. A man of university and legal training, Edmond Kelly, whose first book was as socialistic as it was religious, now gives us A Practical Programme for Workingmen.1 Its opening chapters are almost perfervid religious exhortation. The volume closes with a rhapsody to Wisdom, Faith, and Love. Between these devout appeals to the wage-earners is the Book of Facts, an attempt to work out a positive and constructive policy on which labor can unite politically against the competitive capitalistic system. He holds that all attempts to reconcile Christianity with competition have definitely failed. Only so far as cooperation is substituted for competition does he see a ray of hope for a living religion of brotherhood among men.

Another stout volume, by James Mackaye, The Economy of Happiness,2 is an elevated and closely knit moral system with an outcome frankly socialistic. It is a sustained plea for unselfish social conduct. Like Mr. Kelly, he finds the arch enemy to altruistic behavior in our competitive system. It leaves the real government in the hands of an oligarchy controlled by the rich. Like parrots we have been taught to call these the “fittest.” But for what are they fittest? Their fitness, we are told, consists in acquired skill and cunning to play the competitive game largely against their fellows. But these very talents may work incalculable mischief. They may delay and defeat the moral forces on which the coming of a better social order depends.

The author’s main charge against competition is that its normal working so sets men against one another, as to intensify self-seeking rather than brotherly and social instincts. He condemns it because it fails to make us happier. That it breeds infinite evasion and lying; that it is prolific of frauds, adulterations, and quackeries; that it stimulates a passion for mass and bigness as against quality and excellence has often enough been said. Beyond and deeper than all these, the evil, to Mr. Mackaye, is that happiness, hopefulness, and delight in one’s work suffer irreparable hurt. Until these higher values are rescued, our real “survivals” are the “survivals of the incompetent.”

Social release from these ills the author finds only in socialism. His word is “Pantocracy;” the rule of all in contrast to the rule of the few. Socialism he identifies with realized democracy. Like William Morris, he holds that every highest end of life suffers permanent impairment under our reigning capitalism. The family, liberty, enthusiasm for one’s work, the free use of faculty, and even private property, in its larger social sense, all alike feel the crippling influence of the brute struggle in industry called competition.

Precisely because our captains of industry have learned that competition is the death of trade as well as its life; because these masters for a quarter of a century have been using their cunning to control and to curb these forces, does the author see some hope of transition to a control — not alone for stockholders in sugar, oil, transportation, mines, but a control by all in the inclusive interests of society as a whole. We have indeed now passed into the stage of “pseudosocialism” in which we shall agonize to regulate these vast interests for partial groups now in possession. That this halting regulation can succeed, he has, like all socialists, no hope. We shall madly plunge at it, and after many a fall and much floundering, take our punishment and pass gayly under pantocratic banners into the collectivist régime.

Once there, no soul of us can rob his fellow by taking a cent of interest on money, neither shall any private profits pass to our pockets, nor any rent from houses or lands. These forms of private property are to be taken from the individual and become a social possession.

This “shifting of burdens” is inevitable, because all means of production, land, capital, machinery in every shape, pass from individual to social ownership.

Whether one look farther, to the Socialism3 of the veteran John Spargo, with its lucidity and good temper, or to the brilliant pages of Professor Jaurès’ Studies in Socialism,4 we are in the presence of the same moral revolt against competition, and the same religious faith that men are capable of a nobler and more unselfish social order.

The day has passed when this social challenge can be met either by railing or by raillery. Neither can the collectivist criticism as a whole be cried down. Much of it is morally sound and economically approved. We have already socialized vast areas of what was once private property. A further extension of this policy is now a working part of the responsible politics in every progressive nation.

It is now generally admitted that the more monopolistic forms of business do exploit labor, and the public generally, unless socially controlled. In several nations mere control has been found so difficult that governments have taken the monopolies wholly from the competitive field. No assumption in socialism is more fundamental than that this movement will continue until the whole capitalistic machinery is taken from private ownership and given to the public. To the socialist, all interest, rent, and profitbearing forms of property are vicious and monopolistic.

He not only objects to the “swollen fortunes” that our Chief Executive finds so far threatening as to require legislative action, but upon principle he objects to the most moderate fortunes that are built up or maintained by receipts of rent and interest, or by profits on the sale of products. The true collectivist delights in Rockefellers and Carnegies, because they serve as shining object lessons in reducing the capitalistic system to an absurdity. One of them writes, “ We love the Rockefeller type because his very success works for us. He is not an iota worse than the whole hungry pack of little profit-makers, who do their utmost to take Rockefeller’s place, but lack the strength. He exploits greatly, but the little ones exploit all they can, and no man can be bad beyond his capacity to be bad.”

This admirably reveals the accepted logic of the movement. Not only are the railroads, the express companies, the coal combines, and the beef trust, vicious in private hands, but our entire agricultural and industrial system is vicious in the sense that under it labor does not get what it produces.

The farmer steals from his laborer in the field as truly as the railroad steals from the brakeman. To the socialist our universal business method so works that the wage-earner gets only a portion of his product. Because the farmer is allowed to own his land and hire helpers, he cannot avoid cheating them. They will be fleeced until the public owns the land and all men have free and equal access to it. Then, through coöperative methods, labor secures the strict equivalent of its toil. Whether it is the petty village shopkeeper, or a Wanamaker, matters not. Profit-making under our present wage system, is, at the very heart of it, a form of thievery from those who depend on wages.

The family living gorgeously at the Waldorf-Astoria upon coal royalties is of course a group of parasites sucking plentifully from the life blood of many miners; but parasitic also are those who own their garden plot from which they supply the local market. Here and there, able socialists shrink from their own logic and begin to make exceptions. They would distinguish between the greater and the lesser industries.

It is a dangerous concession. It not only gives up the imposing infallibilities and absolutism of the Marx School, but it implies that private interest and profits are socially useful on considerable areas of the industrial field. This point is vital. Scores of the ablest economists have long since shown the iniquities of wealth appropriation under which monopolies have despoiled the people. It has been held, however, that society could learn to meet this evil, either by taking them over, or through rigid regulation and control. This method does not “throw out the baby with the bath.” It sees without the slightest fear that the “socializing” of many great industries — transportation, express companies, telegraph, and even mines — is likely enough to come on apace. In this country we are soundly committed to the policy of regulation. If, after trial, we are so discomfited as finally to acknowledge that “ownership ” is still with the monopolies, they will certainly pass to the government.

New Zealand has done this already and much more, but that brave community is in no proper sense a synonym of socialism. With extreme daring, it is using its strength to socialize every monopoly-breeding industry, but it uses the same strength to stimulate hundreds of forms of property ownership that are the very antithesis of socialism. When it gives at least eight times as much of its relative wealth as we in the United States, in order to teach the application of science to the soil, it is hoped and believed that private profit-making will have immense fruitful development. To encourage investment and receipt of interest among the whole people is also a part of its policy.

All this, in the extremest democracy in the world, moves directly and defiantly away from the logical theory of collectivism. Fearless, as it is careless, of mere names, democracy in Switzerland and New Zealand is trying to work itself out without attacking the whole complicated order of rent-bearing forms of property. Socialism as a theory and a logic will thrive wherever private monopoly thrives, because these justify the attack.

What we now wish to see is the clean elimination of these private privileges. We wish it not only for a greater economic equality, but, even more, in order to rescue the sources of our political life from defilement. Then and then only can we tell whether all land and all the “means of production” should be taken from private possession. It may prove of indispensable social utility to retain much land for intensive culture in private hands, and many forms of machinery also in private hands, for the interest and stimulus which this form of possession gives. The glaring abuses of capitalism are now fairly clear to us. When these abuses are under control, we shall for the first time be competent to reckon with its further uses. Switzerland and New Zealand have so far subdued the dangerous element in monopoly, that they already serve as the most enlightening examples of a steadily growing democracy. If a genuine democracy with its equalized privilege can be reached, it is a nobler goal than any which a logically developed socialism can possibly offer. This latter carries with it a certain fatalism of compulsion from which the friendliest student continually shrinks. To control politically not merely monopolies, but the whole infinite complexity of wealth-making and distribution, is a proposal as Utopian as any of the older schemes which the modern socialist now assures us were only amiable visions. They are very careful to tell us that Utopian socialism was really very absurd. But Utopia dies hard. It is at the heart of practically every “thorough” proposal made by the different schools in this country.

It is the very bravery of their dream that is the safety of society. The appeal to force has now dwindled to a minority which the collectivist leadership in every country treats kindly but with assuring condescension. It is a leadership growing year by year more conservative, chiefly because it is learning the nature of the thing called politics, — that relentless practical art of making rules for social guidance by some form of majority vote. When once in the saddle, what will it do with importunate and unsatisfied minorities ? We know well that no mere multiplying of wealth-products can bring docility or satisfaction. The hunger for power and distinctions underlies all this.

The rough-and-tumble of politics in the last quarter of a century has taught hundreds of these leaders that the government of men and the organization of society are tasks for sober men who get near enough to take their measure. But still more than this, they see that the economic method of socialism has to submit to terrible tests. It must somewhere be tried, and tried in spots. We have had a socialism which scoffed at this objection as frivolous. “Socialism never can be fairly tried until the whole nation tries it together.” This is of Utopia with a vengeance. Even if it were conceivable that catastrophic changes should enable — let us say — France to adopt it at once and all together through her entire industrial life, even then the test is no less severe. France then must compete. Her collectivism, as an industrial method, is pitted against the capitalistic ways of surrounding nations. To stand against them, she must prove the preëminence of her industrial service to the French people.

Would it be ill news, that a sister nation had found new methods to humanize and enrich her organic life? One socialist friend will have it that the supreme trial must be among all the leading nations acting together, or the trial will be vain. This flight of fancy need not delay us. The sane men among them see that this cannot be. It must here and there, in specific industries, show its superiority in open competition with the despised methods of capitalism. Is it a thing to frighten us, if it can show superiority? It is a superiority moreover that must be passed upon in many places and many times by the larger part of society. If results of widely observed improvement, — empty almshouses, better homes, fewer hours, no unemployed, ampler income, new delight in one’s work, — are found to follow, who are they to fear so great a good ?

Never a theory of social reconstruction was spun in the gray mists of the mind, that was not profoundly modified when applied to life. Socialism as a theory is already touching life at a hundred points and among many peoples. Upon the whole the touch is the touch of life. It makes for a better distribution of wealth and for more deserved equality. But everywhere socialist theory is transformed by that touch as much as the social order is transformed. The tugging drudgery of the world has still to be done, whether under one name or under another. It is a service of responsibility that never fails to sober him upon whom the burdens fall. The immediate work of the generation before us is marked out. That twin iniquity, industrial and political privilege, is the enemy against which socialist and individualist alike have to make war. Enough has already been cleanly achieved to show that the remaining task is within our power.

The truth is, society has not even faintly begun to use its strength against the monopoly privileges, that is, against the crass, exploiting abuses of capitalism.

For the first time a president becomes the disturber. Even if, as one somewhat bewildered, he strikes hotly at the enemy, he calls it by its proper name. He reaches for the great weapon — taxation. Our steel king runs him close; fifty per cent at least inheritance tax upon the intemperately rich! There have been no abler students than those who have long since held that through taxation the real menace of monopoly can be met. To this end, we have not even lifted a finger except here and there, tentatively and timidly, in states. So little are we democratic, that taxation protects and nurses the rich.

If it is true that an awakening is now at hand, this whole mass of economic aristocracies can be turned from the service of the few to the service of the many.

To do this work even decently would deprive socialism of its only danger. We should then not have to fight it or even oppose it, but rather to understand it, to give it freest critical fling, and, above all, to open to it a generous field for collectivist experimenting. If monopoly can be turned to these larger uses, such experimenting will be as safe as an agricultural college. Yes, it will be more than safe, it will be a wholesome critical stimulant. Socialism has been a faith. It is slowly becoming scientific, in the sense and to the extent that it submits its claims to the comparative tests of experience.

We are now too cowardly to face these tests as they apply to the deeper and determining life problems. We shrink because of our very vices and inequalities, as we cringe and shuffle before the only effective proposals to stop the blank horror of war. To win the courage of these new mental habits, socialism will aid us both by its spirit and by its criticism.

  1. A Practical Programme for Workingmen. By EDMOND KELLY. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1906.
  2. The Economy of Happiness. By JAMES MACKAYE. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1906.
  3. Socialism. By JOHN SPARGO. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1906.
  4. Studies in Socialism. By JEAN JAURÈS. New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1906.