Education and the Socialistic Movement

OCTOBER, 1908

BY JOHN BATES CLARK

IN a noteworthy address delivered at Princeton University, President Cleveland expressed the hope that our higher institutions of learning would range themselves like a wall barring the progress of revolutionary doctrines. If one may judge by appearances, this hope has not been realized. There may be a smaller percentage of educated persons than of uneducated ones in the ranks of radical socialism. Those ranks are most readily recruited from the body of illpaid workingmen; but there are enough highly educated persons in them to prove that socialism and the higher culture are not incompatible; and a question that is well worth asking and, if possible, answering, is, What is likely to be the permanent attitude of a scientific mind toward the claims of thoroughgoing socialism ? Will it be generally conservative or the opposite ? Will there be an alliance between intelligence and discontented labor — the kind of union that was once cynically called a " coalition of universities and slums ” ? If so, it will make a formidable party.

It is clear, in the first place, that the scientific habit of thought makes one hospitable to new ideas. A man who cultivates that habit is open to conviction where an ignorant person is not so. He is accustomed to pursue the truth and let the quest lead him where it will. He examines evidence which appears to have force, even although the conclusion to which it leads may be new and unpleasant.

Now, at the very outset of any inquiry about socialism, there appear certain undisputed facts which create a prima facie case in its favor; and the first of them is the beauty of the ideal which it presents: humanity as one family; men working together as brethren, and enjoying, share and share alike, the fruits of their labor — what could be more attractive? There will be an abundance for every one, and as much for the weak as for the strong; and there will be no cause for envy and repining. There will be fraternity ensured by the absence of subjects of contention. We shall love our brethren because we shall have no great cause to hate them; such is the picture. We raise just here no question as to the possibility of realizing it. It is a promised land and not a real one that we are talking about, and for the moment we have given to the socialists carte blanche to do the promising. The picture that they hold up before us certainly has traits of beauty. It is good and pleasant for brethren to dwell together in unity and in abundance.

Again, there is no denying the imperfections of the present system both on its ethical and on its economic side. There is enormous inequality of conditions — want at one extreme and inordinate wealth at another. Many a workingman and his family are a prey to irregular employment and continual anxiety. For such persons what would not a leveling out of inequalities do? To a single capitalist personally a billion dollars would mean palaces, yachts, and a regiment of retainers. It would mean a redoubling of his present profusion of costly decorations, clothing, and furnishings, and it would mean the exhausting of ingenuity in inventing pleasures, all of which, by a law of human nature, would pall on the man from mere abundance. What would the billionaire lose by parting with ninetynine one-hundredths of his wealth ? With the modest ten millions that would be left he could have every pleasure and advantage that money ought to purchase. What would not the sum he would surrender do for a hundred laborers and their families? It would provide comforts for something like half a million persons. It would give them means of culture and of health, banish the hunger spectre, and cause them to live in mental security and peace. In short, at the cost of practically nothing for one man, the redistribution we have imagined would translate half a million persons to a comfortable and hopeful level of life.

Again, the growth of those corporations to which we give the name of “ trusts ” has lessened the force of one stock argument against socialism, and added a wholly new argument in its favor. The difficulty of managing colossal enterprises formerly stood in many minds as the chief consideration against nationalization of capital and industry. What man, or what body of men, can possibly be wise and skillful enough to handle such operations ? They are now, in some instances, in process of handling them, and those who wish to change the present order tell us that all we have to do is to transfer the ownership of them to the state, and let them continue working as they do at present. We have found men wise enough to manage the trusts, and probably, in most cases, they are honest enough to do so in the interest of the stockholders. On the question of honesty the socialist has the advantage in the argument, for he will tell us that with the private ownership of capital made impossible by law, the temptation to dishonesty is removed. If the socialistic state could be warranted free from “graft,” this would constitute the largest single argument in its favor.

It is, indeed, not the same thing to manage a myriad of industries as to manage a single one, because certain nice adjustments have to be made between the several industries, and we shall see what this difficulty signifies; but as we are looking only at prima facie claims, we will give to the argument from the existence of trusts all the force that belongs to it.

As the difficulty of nationalizing production has been reduced, the need of it has been increased, for the trusts artbecoming partial monopolies, able to raise prices, reduce wages, cheapen raw materials, and make themselves, if they shall go much farther in this line, altogether intolerable. Indeed, the single fact of the presence of private monopoly, and the lack of any obvious and sure plan of successfully dealing with it, has been enough to convert a multitude of intelligent men to the socialistic view.

Here, then, is a list of arguments making an effective case for socialism: the beauty of its ideal, the glaring inequalities of the present system, the reduction of the difficulty of managing great industries through public officials, the growing evils of private monopoly, and the preference for public monopoly as a mode of escape. They captivate a multitude of persons, and it is time carefully to weigh them. It is necessary to decide whether the promises of the socialistic state are to be trusted. Would the ideal materialize ? Is it a substantial thing, within reachable distance, or is it a city in the clouds ? If it is not wholly away from the earth, is it on the delectable mountains of a remote millennium ? Is it as wholly desirable as it at first appears ?

There are some considerations which any educated mind should be able to grasp, which reduce the attractiveness of the socialistic ideal itself. Shall we transform humanity into a great band of brethren by abolishing private property ? Differences of wealth which now excite envy would, of course, be removed. The temptation to covetousness would be reduced, since there would not be much to covet. There would be nothing a man could do with plunder — unless he could emigrate with it. Would “ hatred and all uncharitableness ” be therefore completely absent, or would they be present in a form that would still make trouble ?

Even though there would be no differences of possessions between man and man, there would be great differences in the desirability of different kinds of labor. Some work is safe and some is dangerous. Some is agreeable and some is disagreeable. The artist, the author, the scientist, the explorer, and the inventor take pleasure in their work; and that is not often to be said of the stoker, the grinder of tools, the coal-miner, or the worker in factories where explosives or poisons are made. It is not to be said of any one who has to undergo exhausting labor for long hours. In industries managed by the state there would be no practicable way of avoiding the necessity of assigning men to disagreeable, arduous, unhealthful, or dangerous employments. Selections of men for such fields of labor would in some way have to be made, and those selected for the undesirable tasks would have to be held to them by public authority. Well would it be if the men so consigned, looking upon the more fortunate workers, were not good material for an army of discontent. Well would it be if their discontent were not turned into suspicion of their rulers and charges of favoritism in personal treatment. There would not be, as now, an abstraction called a “ system,” on which, as upon the camel’s back, it would be possible to load the prevalent evils. Strong in the affections of the people must be the personnel of a government that could survive the discontent which necessary inequalities of treatment would excite. Would the government be likely to be thus strong in popular affection ? We may judge as to this if we look at one further peculiarity of it.

The pursuit of wealth now furnishes the outlet for the overmastering ambition of many persons. In the new state, the desire to rise in the world would have only one main outlet, namely, politics. The work of governing the country, and that of managing its industries, would be merged in one great official body. The contrast between rulers and ruled would be enormously heightened by this concentration of power in the hands of the rulers, and by the further fact that the ruled would never be able, by means of wealth, to acquire an offset for the advantages of office-holding. The desire for public position must therefore be intensified.

There would be some prizes to be gained, in a worthy way, by other kinds of service, such as authorship, invention, and discovery; but the prizes which would appeal to most men would be those of officialdom. Is it in reason to suppose that the method of securing the offices would then be better than it is at present? Would a man, under the new régime, work quietly at his task in the shoe-shop, the bakery, or the mine, waiting for the office to which he aspired to seek him out, or would he try to make terms with other men for mutual assistance in the quest of office ? Would rings be less general than they are now ? Could there fail to be bosses and political machines ? Would the Tammanys of the new order, then, be an improvement on the Tammanys of the old order ? To the sober second thought which mental training ought to favor, it appears that the claim of the socialistic state to a peculiar moral excellence brought about by its equality of possessions needs a very thorough sifting.

Without making any dogmatic assertions, we may say that there would certainly have to be machines of some sort for pushing men into public offices, and that these would have very sinister possibilities. They would be opposed by counter machines, made up of men out of office and anxious to get in. “ I am able to see,” said Marshal MacMahon, when nearing the end of his brief presidency of the French Republic, “ that there are two classes of men, — those who command and those who must obey.” If the demarcation were as sharp as that in actual society, and if the great prizes in life were political, brief indeed might be the tenure of place by any one party, and revolutions of more than South American frequency might be the normal state of society. One may look at the ideal which collectivism presents, with no thought of such dangers; but it is the part of intelligence at least to take account of them.

Besides the fact that some would be in office and others out, and that some would be in easy and desirable trades and others in undesirable ones, there would be the further fact that some would live in the city and some in the country, and that the mere localizing of occupations would afford difficulty for the ruling class and be a further cause of possible discontent. But a much more serious test of the capacity of the government would have to be made in another way. Very nice adjustments would have to be made between agriculture on the one hand, and manufactures and commerce on the other; and further adjustments would have to be made between the different branches of each generic division. All this would be done, not automatically as at present, by the action of demand and supply in a market, but by the voluntary acts of officials. Here is the field in which the wisdom of officials would be overtaxed. They might manage the mills of the steel trust, but it would trouble them to say how many men should be employed in that business and how many in every other, and of the men in that generic branch, how many should work in Pittsburg and how many in the mines of Michigan and Minnesota.

A fine economic classic is the passage in which Bishop Whately describes the difficulty of provisioning the City of London by the action of an official commissariat, and contrasts it with the perfection with which this is now done without such official control. Individuals, each of whom seeks only to promote his own interest, work in harmony, prevent waste, and secure the city against a lack of any needed element. Far greater would be the contrast between satisfying by public action every want of a nation, and doing this by the present automatic process; and yet crude thought even calls competition “ chaotic,” and calls on the state to substitute an orderly process. Into that particular error discriminating thought will not readily fall.

Difficulties which a discerning eye perceives, and an undiscerning one neglects, thus affect the conclusion that is reached as to whether a socialistic plan of industry could or could not be made to work. Ignorance does not so much as encounter the real difficulties in the case, but lightly assumes that the plan would work, and is eager to try it. I am not, here and now, claiming that the difficulties cited positively prove that the scheme would not work. Granting now, for the sake of further argument, that it could be made to work, — that on the political side it would proceed smoothly and peaceably, and that on the economic side it would run on no fatal rocks, — would it give a material result worth having?

Here is a chance for a wider range of difference between the conclusions of different minds. There are three specific consequences of the socialistic plan of industry, each of which is at least possible; and a prospect that all of them would occur together would suffice to deter practically every one from adhering to this plan. Estimates of the probability of these evils will vary, but that each one of the three is possible, is not to be denied. Of these results, the first is, on the whole, the gravest. It is the check that socialism might impose on technical progress. At present we see a bewildering succession of inventions transforming the industries of the world. Machine after machine appears in rapid succession, each displacing its predecessor, working for a time and giving way to still better devices. The power of man over nature increases with amazing rapidity. Even in the relatively simple operations of agriculture, the reaper, the thresher, the seeder, and the gang-plough enable a man to-day to do as much work as could a score of men in the colonial period of American history. In manufacturing, the gain is greater; and in transportation, it is indefinitely greater. The progress goes on without cessation, since the thing which guarantees it is the impulse of self-preservation. An employer must improve his mechanism if his rivals do so. He must now and then get ahead of his rivals if he is to make any profit. Conservatism which adheres to the old is self-destruction, and a certain audacity affords the nearest approach to safety. From this it comes about, first, that forward movements are made daily and hourly in some part of the field; and, secondly, that with every forward movement the whole procession must move on to catch up with its new leader.

Now, it is possible to suppose that under socialism an altruistic motive may lead men to make inventions and discoveries. They may work for the good of humanity. The desire for distinction may also impel them to such labors, and nonpecuniary rewards offered by the state may second this desire. The inventive impulse may act even where no reward is in view. Men will differ greatly in their estimates of the amount of progress that can be gained in this way; but the thing that may be affirmed without danger of denial is, that the competitive race absolutely compels progress at a rate that is inspiringly rapid, and that there is much uncertainty as to the amount of progress that would be secured where other motives are relied on. Officialdom is generally unfavorable to the adoption of improved devices, even when they are presented; its boards have frequently been the graveyards of inventions, and there is no blinking the uncertainty as to whether a satisfactory rate of improvement could be obtained where the methods of production should be at the mercy of such boards. The keener the intelligence the more clearly it will perceive the importance of progress, and the immeasurable evil that would follow any check upon it; the more also it will dread every cause of uncertainty as to the maintenance of the present rate of improvement.

An important fact concerning competitive industry is the ease with which new technical methods translate themselves, first into temporary profits for employers, and then into abiding returns for other classes. The man who introduces an efficient machine makes money by the means until his competitors get a similar appliance, after which the profit vanishes. The product of the machine still enriches society, by diffusing itself among the people in the shape of lower prices of goods. The profit from any one such device is bound to be temporary, while the gain that comes from cheap goods is permanent. If we watch some one industry, like shoemaking or cotton-spinning, we find profits appearing and vanishing, and appearing again and vanishing again. If we include in our vision the system as a whole, we find them appearing now in one branch of industry, now in another, and now in still another, shifting forever their places in the system, but always present somewhere. Steel, cotton, wool, machinery, or flour, takes its turn in affording gains to its producer, and these gains constitute the largest source of additions to capital. These natural profits in themselves burden nobody. Not only is there in them no trace of exploitation of labor, but from the very start the influence that yields the profit improves the condition of labor, and in the end labor, as the greatest of all consumers, gets the major benefit.1

Now, an important fact is that such profits based on improved technical processes naturally, and almost necessarily, add themselves to capital. The employer wishes to enlarge his business while the profits last — “to make hay while the sun shines.” He has no disposition to spend the income which he knows will be transient, but has every disposition to enlarge the scale of his operations and provide a permanent income for the future. Easily, naturally, painlessly, the great accretions of capital come; mainly by advances in technical operations of production.

In the socialistic state all the incomes of the year would be pooled. They would make a composite sum out of which every one’s stipend would have to be taken. There would be no special and personal profit for any one. The gains that come from improved technique would not be distinguishable from those that come from other sources. Every one would be a laborer, and every one would get his daily or weekly stipend; and if capital had to be increased, — if the needs of an enlarging business had to be provided for at all, — it could only be done by withholding some part of that stipend. It would be an unwelcome way of making accumulations. It would mean the conscious acceptance by the entire working class of a smaller income than might otherwise be had. If one has heroic confidence in the far-seeing quality and in the generous purpose of the working class, he may perhaps think that it will reconcile itself to this painful self-denial for the benefit of the future; but it is clear that there are large probabilities in the other direction. There is danger that capital would not be thus saved in sufficient quantity, and that, if it were not so, no power on earth could prevent the earning capacity of labor from suffering in consequence. From mere dearth of capital the socialistic state, though it were more progressive than we think, would be in danger of becoming poorer and poorer.

There is another fact concerning the present system which a brief study of economics brings to every one’s attention, and which has a very close connection with the outlook for the future of laborers. It is the growth of population. The Malthusian doctrine of population maintains that increased wages are followed by a quick increase in the number of the working-people, and that this brings the wages down to their former level. On its face it appears to say that there is not much hope of permanent gains for labor, and it was this teaching which was chiefly responsible for giving to political economy the nickname of the “ dismal science.” It is true that the teachings of Malthus contain a proviso whereby it is not impossible under a certain condition that the wages of labor may permanently increase. Something may raise the standard of living more or less permanently, and this fact may nullify the tendency of population to increase unduly. Modern teachings make the utmost of this saving proviso, and show that standards have in fact risen, that families of the well-to-do are smaller than those of empty-handed laborers, and that, with advancing wages based on enlarged producing power, the workers may not see their gains slipping from their hands in the old Malthusian fashion, but may hold them more and more firmly. Progress may cause further progress.

Now, socialism proposes to place families in a condition resembling that in which, in American history, the natural growth has been most rapid, the condition, namely, in which children are maintained without cost to parents, as they were when they lived on farms and were set working at an early age. If this should mean that the old Malthusian law would operate in the socialistic state, the experiment would be hopelessly wrecked. If the state provides for children from their birth to the end of their lives, the particular influence that puts a check on the size of families will be absent. One may not affirm with positiveness that the worst form of Malthusianism would actually operate under socialism; nothing but experiment will give certain knowledge in this particular; but what a little discernment makes perfectly certain is, that there would be danger of this.

Quite apart, then, from political uncertainties, three coördinate influences on the purely economic side must be taken full account of by anybody who would intelligently advocate the nationalizing of production. They are: first, the probable check on technical progress; secondly, the difficulty encountered in enlarging capital; and thirdly, the possible impetus to the growth of population. If the first two influences were to work without the other, socialism would mean that we should all slowly grow poor together; and if the third influence were also to operate, we should grow poor very rapidly.

We have not proved, as if by incontestable mathematics, that socialism is not practicable and not desirable. We have cited facts which lead a majority of persons to believe this. The unfavorable possibilities of socialism bulk large in an intelligent view, but positive proof as to what would happen in such a state can come only through actual experience. Some country must turn itself into an experimental laboratory for testing the collective mode of production and distribution, before the world can definitely know what that process would involve. In advance of this test, there is a line of inquiry which yields a more assured conclusion than can any estimate of a state which, as yet, is imaginary. It is the study of the present industrial system and its tendencies. When we guess that the collective management of all production by the state would fail to work, and would lead to poverty even if it succeeded in working, we are met by those who guess it would succeed and lead to general abundance; and they will certainly claim that their guesses are worth as much as ours. As to the tendencies of the present state, and the outlook they afford, it is possible to know much more. The testimony of facts is positive as to some things, and very convincing as to others.

No one is disposed to deny the dazzling series of technical improvements which the rivalries of the present day ensure. There is not only progress, but a law of progress; not only the productive power that we are gaining, but the force that, if allowed to work, will forever compel us to gain it. There is no assignable limit to the power that man will hereafter acquire over nature. Again and again, in the coming years and centuries, will the wand of inventive genius smite the rock and cause new streams of wealth to gush forth; and, as already said, much of this new wealth will take naturally and easily the form of capital. It will multiply and improve the tools that labor works with; and a fact which science proves is that the laborer, quite apart from the capitalist, thrives by the operation. He gets higher and higher pay as his method of laboring becomes more fruitful. It is as though he were personally bringing for his own use new streams from the rock; and even though this worker were striking a landlord’s rock with a capitalist’s hammer, the new stream could not fail to come largely to himself.

Mere labor will have increasing power to create wealth, and to get wealth, as its methods improve and its tools more and more abound. This will not transform the workingman’s whole life in a day — it will not instantly place him where the rubbing of a lamp will make genii his servants, but it will give him to-morrow more than he gets to-day, and the day after to-morrow still more. It will enable his own efforts to raise him surely, steadily, inspiringly, toward the condition of which he dreams. It will throw sunshine on the future hills — substantial and reachable hills, though less brilliant than pictured mountains of cloudland.

Well within the possibilities of a generation or two is the gain that will make the worker comfortable and care-free. Like the village blacksmith, he may “ look the whole world in the face ” with independence, but with no latent enmity. Manly self-assertion there may be, with no sense of injury. The well-paid laborer may stand before the rich without envy, as the rich will stand before him without pity or condescension. It may be that the condition described by Edward Atkinson, in which it “ will not pay to be rich ” because of the cares which wealth must bring, may never arrive. It will always be better to have something than to have nothing; but it may, at some time, be better to have relatively little than to have inordinately much; and the worker may be able to come nearer and nearer to the state in which, for him, comforts are plentiful and anxieties are scarce. Amid a vast inequality of mere possessions, there may be less and less of inequality of genuine welfare. Many a man with a modest store may have no wish to change lots with the multimillionaire. For comfortable living, for high thinking, and for the finer traits of humanity, the odds may be in his favor.

In such a state there might easily be realized a stronger democracy than any which a leveling of fortunes would bring. Pulling others down that we may pull ourselves up is not a good initial step in a régime of brotherhood; but raising ourselves and others together is the very best step from the first and throughout. And the fraternity which comes in this way is by far the finer, because of inequality of possessions. If we can love no man truly unless we have as much money as he has, our brotherly spirit is of a very peculiar kind, and the fraternity that would depend on such a leveling would have no virility. It would have the pulpy fibre of a rank weed, while the manlier brotherhood that grows in the midst of inequality has the oaken fibre that endures. The relatively poor we shall have with us, and the inordinately rich as well; but it is in the power of humanity to project its fraternal bonds across the chasms which such conditions create. Though there be thrones and principalities in our earthly paradise, they will not mar its perfection, but will develop the finer traits of its inhabitants.

This state is the better because it is not cheaply attained. There are difficulties to be surmounted, which we have barely time to mention and no time to discuss. One of the greatest of these is the vanishing of much competition. The eager rivalry in perfecting methods and multiplying products, which is at the basis of our confidence in the future, seems to have here and there given place to monopoly, which always means apathy and stagnation. We have before us a struggle — a successful one, if we rise to the occasion — to keep alive the essential force of competition; and this fact reveals the very practical relation which intelligence sustains to the different proposals for social improvement. It must put us in the way of keeping effective the mainspring of progress — of surmounting those evils which mar the present prospect. Trained intelligence here has its task marked out for it: it must show that monopoly can be effectively attacked, and must point out the way to do it — a far different way from any yet adopted. Our people have the fortunes of themselves, their children, and their children’s children, in their own hands. Surely, and even somewhat rapidly, may the gains we have outlined be made to come by united effort guided by intelligent thought.

It requires discernment to estimate progress itself at its true value. John Stuart Mill made the remark that no system could be worse than the present one, if that system did not admit of improvement. This remark could be made of any system. However fair a social state might at the outset appear, it would be essentially bad if it could never change for the better. The society in which efficient methods supplant inefficient ones, and in which able directors come naturally into control of production, ensures a perpetual survival of excellence, and however low might be the state from which such a course of progress took its start, the society would ultimately excel any stationary one that could be imagined. A Purgatory actuated by the principle which guarantees improvement will surpass, in the end, a Paradise which has not this dynamic quality. For a limited class in our own land — chiefly in the slums of cities — life has too much of the purgatorial quality; for the great body of its inhabitants the condition it affords, though by no means a paradise, is one that would have seemed so to many a civilization of the past and to many a foreign society of to-day. On its future course it is starting from a high level, and is moved by a powerful force toward an ideal which will some day be a reality, and which is therefore inspiring to look upon, even in the distance.

Like Webster, we may hail the advancing generations and bid them welcome to a land that is fairer than our own, and promises to grow fairer and fairer forever. That this prospect be not imperiled — that the forces that make it a reality be enabled to do their work — is what the men of the future ask of the intelligence of to-day.

  1. A fuller treatment of this subject would take account of the incidental evils which inventions often cause, by forcing some persons to change their employments, and would show that these evils were once great but are now smaller and destined to diminish.