Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/March 1891/Supposed Tendencies to Socialism




MARCH, 1891.




THERE are others besides Herbert Spencer who discern socialism as the end or logical outcome of certain tendencies which now prevail or which are thought to prevail; and, as all prophecies in modern times must be based on what we know of existing tendencies, supplemented by what history tells us of the course of similar tendencies in the past, it is a matter of importance to know how far such tendencies do really exist, and, if they do, to gauge, if possible, their probable momentum, and to judge whether they are likely to be permanent or passing, because confident prophecies have been hazarded on the strength of certain tendencies, while at the very moment of the prophecy a counter-tendency was setting in.[2]

The alleged tendencies to socialism are chiefly two: the tendency of the state to widen its functions, especially in the economic sphere; and the tendency to increased concentration of wealth. As to the former, there is no doubt that the modern state has a tendency to widen the range of its activity in the economic sphere, as also in the interests of culture, and this tendency is to a certain extent socialistic. The tendency exists; it has increased in England during the present century, especially since the passing of the first Factory Acts in 1844. It has increased especially in the legislative sphere, and as far as the regulation of industry is concerned; it will increase further in the interests of the health, the happiness, and the morals of the working class; so in like manner the tendency to assume industrial functions on the part of the central or the local government will increase. Nevertheless, this tendency will not increase fast nor go far, unless a second tendency, which we have now particularly to consider, should develop and show itself socially mischievous.

The second tendency is that toward the increased massing together or concentration of capital which has been going on all through this century, at first as a consequence of the industrial revolution and the needs of the large scale of production, then by the undertaking of ever larger enterprises requiring vast sums of capital, as in the making and working of railways—a tendency which first showed itself in the instance of the great individual capitalist, then in the company or union of capitalists, and lastly, within the past few years, in the syndicate or union of companies. This second tendency does exist; it is likewise an increasing tendency, and, under certain circumstances of abuse into which it would be tempted to fall, it might lead to socialism, not because of its affinities, since it is the very opposite of socialism, but by way of repulsion; it might lead to excessive government regulation, or to the superseding of the syndicates by government management in the interest of the public.

But, before considering the circumstances which might lead to such state socialism, it is necessary to clear away a mistake as to the concentration of capital, to point out a mistaken tendency, which, if it really did exist, would probably lead to socialism by a far shorter road—the mistake that the increasing concentration of capital, which is an undoubted fact, is an increasing concentration or accumulation in ever fewer individual hands; a mistake made conspicuously by Karl Marx, which was indorsed by Cairnes and Fawcett, and which lies at the bottom of all their desires to change the present industrial organization by substituting for it universal collectivism, as Marx would wish, or cooperative production, as the other two prefer.

According to Karl Marx, socialism will come when the process of evolution has resulted in a few colossal capitalists face to face with millions of exploited and expropriated proletarians, including many smaller capitalists who have been undersold and driven into the ranks of the proletariate. "When the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital has resulted in a few gigantic ones with a growing mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, and exploitation"; and when, in addition, "the working class, increased in numbers, organized, disciplined, and united by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself, is animated with a spirit of revolt," then, he declares, "the knell of capitalist property will sound, the expropriators will be expropriated." But we can now see that Marx mistook the course of the industrial evolution, and that he prophesied without due allowance for other facts and forces that might check, or cross, or turn the tendency he thought he had divined.

According to Cairnes also, as we have seen, the tendency is to "an increased inequality in distribution. The rich will grow richer, the poor, at least relatively, poorer." And he recommends to the latter co-operative production as their sole hope. Now, Cairnes's mistake was the less excusable, as he wrote at a time (1874) when the tendency to great individual accumulation had received a check, and there were statistics available that might have tested his deduction. And, in fact, all that his argument really proves is that the class receiving interest (and occasionally wages of management, in addition to interest) tends to get a larger part of the produce than the class that lives by hired wages, or, as he puts it, that the wages fund tends to lag behind the other parts into which capital is divided. This last, if true, would still be a sufficiently serious thing, though Mr. Giffen, the eminent statistician, denies its truth; but, true or not, it is a quite different thing from the increasing concentration of wealth in individual hands, which Cairnes appears, in the above quotations, to think implied in it; that one class, and a large class, tends to get a somewhat larger share than another and a much larger class would not be a desirable thing if it could be prevented; it would scarcely be an argument for a total change in our industrial system, as desired by Cairnes, still less for the further social and political changes desired by advanced socialists.

According to Comte also (writing in 1850), the tendency was to the greater concentration of capital in the hands of individual capitalists; he thought the tendency a good one; far from desiring to thwart it by human volitions, he affirmed that the tendency would necessarily and beneficially lead to a more pronounced capitalism instead of to socialism, and with the capitalists ruling in the political as well as the industrial sphere so differently did the philosophers forecast the future from the same assumed tendency.

Now, if the tendency were really to the concentration of capital in ever fewer hands, with a mighty mass of ill-paid and discontented workers, and with no great middle class lying between, then indeed the transition to socialism more or less complete would be much easier to accomplish, and in some shape it would probably come; at least it would be easier to expropriate a comparative few; it would be almost impossible to prevent it, the forces of might and justice added to envy being adverse, and with no mediating middle class. Both might and morality would

�� � be on the side of the laboring class, and the fall of such a plutocracy might be safely prophesied. But Marx happily was mistaken as to the tendency. The tendency is not to the greater and greater fortunes of individual capitalists. That tendency did, however, exist during and for a certain time after the industrial revolution, especially in England, so long as she had a comparative monopoly of the continental as well as other foreign markets. And the tendency was so marked, it lasted so long, and some men became so rich, that Marx may be excused for generalizing too hastily from it, as undoubtedly he did. That tendency has now almost ceased in England, from increased competition, from the want of the old opportunities, from increased wages, from the spread of companies, and other causes; and though it did exist at the time Comte wrote, according to M. Leroy-Beaulieu it has ceased in France; the law, moreover, having there considerably assisted to check it by the equal partition of inheritances among the children.

The real tendency at present is to the greater massing together of separate portions of capital owned by many capitalists, small, great, and of moderate dimensions; to the concentration of capital certainly, but not to its concentration in single hands; to the union of capitals for a common purpose, while still separately owned. The tendency is to the creation of companies and unions of companies; to the transformation of the larger businesses into companies with larger capital, the original owner retaining a large portion of the shares, and possibly a large influence in the management, if the business is in a sound condition. The tendency is also to give business ability without capital chances of becoming rich through the management of such large concerns, and greatly to increase the number of directors of industry who, without being large capitalists, may in time become considerable capitalists.

The tendency to the concentration of capital, then, does exist as a fact, and socialism might conceivably come as the end of the tendency; only it will not come as the result of its concentration in the hands of a few mammoth millionaires, for the tendency is not toward such in any country save the United States, and even there the tendency is not marked, or it only shows itself in comparatively few instances. It might conceivably come as the result of a universal syndicate and monopolistic regime, which, if the monopolists greatly abused their position, might necessitate the state either to regulate stringently or itself to occupy and undertake those industries whose abuses proved incorrigible. But if a partial socialism came in this way, it would give the present system a much longer lease of life, both because the process of monopolistic occupation will probably be slow, and because the capitalists of a given country will not be, as Marx prognosticated, a small number, but hundreds of thousands, probably millions, who would oppose a very powerful resistance to state occupation of a given industry, unless where such occupation was manifestly beneficial for the great majority.

The great multitude interested, the great number of owners of capital, whether in large or small portions, including the more intelligent artisans, would certainly make it difficult or impossible to expropriate them, would indefinitely delay the process, and only those industries could be taken over by the state the functions of which were discharged to the detriment of the community.

If indeed every province of production, distribution, and transport were occupied by syndicates and monopolies; if they abused the natural strength of the monopolist's position by raising prices to the utmost, and especially prices of the prime necessaries, while at the same time trying to reduce wages to the lowest point; if, in short, they were animated solely by egoism, and without conscience, or humanity, or public spirit, the public outside the industrial world, the large and intelligent middle class outside the industrial class, would probably side with the laboring class in pressing on the Government the suppression of the worst of them and the undertaking of their functions.

But, in the first place, the universal occupation of the industrial field by monopolies, and the extinction of competition, is very far off; in the second place, where any large combinations show too much corporate selfishness they can be pulled up by state supervision, and in certain cases great potential combinations can be nipped in the bud, their formation can be prevented by the state refusing permission to the companies to unite as "contrary to public policy" or to public interest; because a company is, in a certain sense, a creation of the state, as is likewise a union, and neither should exist, or receive permission of the state to come into being, if deemed likely to prove inimical to the general weal, so that the state could always check early or altogether the formation of possibly objectionable unions. Where, as in a case like that of railways, they were necessary, it would not be desirable to prevent their formation; they could always be checked if they abused their position, and conditions should always be attached to the concession of powers and privileges to them. It is, therefore, extremely unlikely that the industrial field will ever be occupied by a few colossal and irresponsible syndicates, or that the state will be driven to substitute itself for them, save possibly in a very few cases.

Lastly, the syndicates would have to be devoid not only of conscience, humanity, public spirit, but also, what we can less easily suppose to be absent, common sense and prudence, if they tried to extort the highest prices in cases of necessaries supposed to be controlled by them, or, on the other hand, to reduce wages to the lowest point, on the ground that laborers had no alternative work; such would be dangerous policy for themselves, though no doubt there would be a temptation to it which might prove too great for some employers. Only in such a case of abuse would the state be called upon to interfere, and either strictly regulate or itself undertake the function abused.

But the result of these several considerations is to put off universal socialism indefinitely as a natural evolution, and points merely to the introduction of such partial applications of state socialism as peremptory public exigence may require, in those cases where a social function could not be intrusted to private enterprise, whether monopolistic or competitive.

There is also the tendency on the part of the laborers to cooperative effort, from which some people expect the elevation of the laborers and the composing of the quarrel between capital and labor by merging the two; and this tendency does certainly exist; it is, moreover, in the direction of socialism in the widest sense of the word; only it is a much slower tendency, and a smaller one, more especially in the field of production, as already stated. Of the two tendencies, one to co-operation on the part of labor, and one to the spread and consolidation of companies on the part of capital, the former will not develop fast enough. The company will develop much faster, and socialism might much sooner come as the term of that evolution unchecked than through cooperation. But the one might be restrained by the state, the other might be quickened; the state might become the workingman's bank, to some extent, as it has been the creditor of the farmer in Ireland; it might lend at market rate, three or three and a half per cent, to such associations of workers as had saved a moiety of capital, if they could show the likelihood of success in their projected enterprise. But as this point has already been considered, it is not necessary to enlarge on it here any further than to say that the working classes, now that they have got so much political power, may not improbably press for some state assistance to increase the numbers of owners of capital, especially as the results of unaided efforts must be extremely small and slow.

What political action to improve their economical position they may take can not be precisely stated. It is by no means likely that they will ever combine to demand a maximum working day in England. They will not ask the help of the state for the purpose; nor will they, with the socialists, ask it to fix a minimum of wages, which they can if they choose themselves fix through trades-unions. They may ask for the nationalization of the land; though, it is not clear, if landlords were compensated, what they would gain by it beyond the creation of small fanners, the granting of allotments to agricultural or other laborers, as an occupation for slack times, all of which may be secured otherwise: so that it is not easy to forecast the resultant line of action of the working classes, more especially as the interests of the skilled and unskilled laborers are not always identical, however the desires for higher wages and fewer hours may be common to both.

Thus far as to the existing tendencies. As to the final goal, it is very difficult to say what it will be, or what the end in which society will rest (if, indeed, it ever attains to rest other than provisional equilibrium). And it is difficult because of the new and unforeseen factors that arise in the course of an everexpanding evolution which might upset our calculations. New factors, industrial, social, moral, religious; new physical discoveries, like steam or electricity, that might revolutionize industry; new moral or religious forces that might revolutionize manners and the scheme of life, and with it indirectly the distribution of wealth; and great physical discoveries and inventions affecting industry we may indeed certainly look for as in the normal course of evolution.

Society may, indeed, come to the collective ownership of land and capital, but it will not be for a long time; it may come to equality of material goods, but it will be at a time still more remote. On the other hand, the system of private property and freedom of contract may last indefinitely or forever; but, if it does, we may safely prophesy that it will be brought more in accordance with reason, justice, and the general good, and, though there be never equality of property, there will be a nearer approach to equality of opportunities, and a somewhat nearer approximation of the existing great extremes of fortune.

Eminent writers during the past hundred years have prophesied far more confidently as to the future: Karl Marx, as we have seen, that the concentration of capital in the hands of a few would lead, naturally, necessarily, and at no distant date, to their expropriation, and to a collectivist régime; and De Tocqueville, that society was being borne invincibly to a state of general equality of conditions, where the state would continallybecome more powerful. On the other hand, the sociologists, who, if their science were all that its name implies, should be able to forecast the future, "to look into the seeds of time and say which grains would grow and which would not," predict very differently: Comte, that the concentration of capital in ever fewer hands would and should lead definitely to the political rule of the capitalists, tempered by the counsel of positive philosophers, and that within a short space of time; while Herbert Spencer, as we have already seen, filled with the doctrine of evolution, and impressed with the lesson it teaches as to the length of time required for changes for the better, discerns at "the limits of evolution," countless generations hence, as goal, a system of property and contract, purified and supplemented by voluntary benevolence, with the authority of the state reduced to a minimum.

In like manner Mill prophesied; but his conclusion was different. He prophesied that co-operative production, "sooner than people in general imagined," would transform society by superseding the capitalist employer; and with respect to the two exactly opposite prophecies of Mill and Comte, all that need be said is that neither of them has been as yet fulfilled. Co-operative production has not advanced, nor, on the other hand, has the capitalist attained supreme political power, though of the two perhaps the prophecy of Comte has come nearer to fulfillment.

When De Tocqueville wrote his remarkable book on "Democracy in America," the new tendency to inequality had not shown itself in America, there was great equality of conditions, and there was likewise considerable equality of conditions in France as a consequence of the Revolution. De Tocqueville generalized from what he then saw, and prophesied a further and a general equality, though somewhat prematurely, because a tendency to a prodigious inequality was setting in at the time he was writing, a tendency first manifested in England, that increased, spread, embraced the civilized world, that was followed by a new social conquest, and the rise of a new and potent moneyed aristocracy. It grew greater; and, generalizing from this tendency, Karl Marx prophesied it would grow still greater until all capital was concentrated in a few hands; the capitalists would then be expropriated, and socialism and equality would come. But Marx, as already stated, based his prophecy on a misread tendency, a short tendency which had spent its full force before he died, just as De Tocqueville based his prediction on a supposed tendency gathered from the facts of a generation earlier. Both were wrong: a great current toward inequality came, especially in America, after De Tocqueville wrote, in 1835, just as there came a check to the concentration of capital in fewer hands, and a tendency to its dispersal, before Marx died.

Others also have prophesied in our century, though without pretending to base their predictions on the scientific study of political or social phenomena: St. Simon, that the golden age was in the future, and that society would reach it through his doctrine; Carlyle, that the abyss lay before society, unless the Great Man appeared to save it. To the like effect the poet-laureate also speaks: "Before earth reach her earthly best a God must mingle with the game."

What is the lesson to be gathered from the prophets and writers on the science of society? Not that we should expect an early and radical transformation of society; neither the supremacy of a few capitalists, nor yet their early expropriation; hardly even that we should expect the coming of the semi-divine man of Carlyle and Tennyson to set things right. The chief lesson is the rashness and exceeding doubtfulness of specific prophecies which are grounded as often on hopes or fears, likes or dislikes, as on superior insight. The prophets are, however, in general optimistic; they believe in progress or evolution; and they believe that civilized society is progressing to something better than the present state, though they differ considerably as to what constitutes that better. I share this faith, on the whole, myself. I believe that society is in movement as part of an inevitable process to something better in the end, though some of the stages to it may appear to be really worse for particular generations. I believe we are moving toward a better, to "a far-off divine event" which can not be fully perceived at present; and I believe that the road to it lies through something better than the present which can be perceived. To get to this better will require the co-operative efforts and volitions of men, especially of the working classes, and of their leaders. Social thinkers will be required to furnish light and guidance, and also, it may be, great statesmen filled with the spirit of understanding and justice, and with regard for the general good. There will be neither miracle wrought, nor sudden social transformation, which would be a miracle in order to last; but with good sense, self-reliance, and persistence on the part of the many, assisted by the light and help of the few, and with better dispositions on the part of employers of labor, a considerable advance for the whole people, and especially for the cause of labor, might be made during the present generation; while, with these same conditions as permanent facts, the movement for social reform, if not the socialistic movement, will advance as fast as is desirable, and will realize in future as much good as the nature and complexity of things social and things human will allow.

The scheme for an exploration of the antarctic regions is gradually assuming shape. A report was made at the meeting of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia in August, that Baron Nordenskiöld would consent to take command of an expedition on condition that the Australian colonies contribute five thousand pounds toward the expenses, to be met by a like contribution by Nordenskiöld's friend Baron Oscar Dickson. The Geographical Society, which had already pledged itself to support a South Polar Expedition, accepted the proposition of the Swedes at once, on the faith that the necessary subscriptions would be secured, and itself contributed two hundred pounds toward the amount.
  1. From Socialism New and Old, by William Graham. International Scientific Series, No. LXVIII. In press of D. Appleton & Co.
  2. As in the case of De Tocqueville's celebrated prophecy that nothing could stop the tide setting toward democracy and the equality of conditions, although a counter-tide toward a new inequality had already set in, with, as a consequence of it, the rise of a new aristocracy or plutocracy in all western Europe.