Updated: Feb 24
We are all talking about socialism today. We discuss its abstract principles. We question, emphatically, whether it is practicable with such being as men, in a world like the present. Granting it to be practicable, we discuss methods of approach. Finally, we debate, ad infinitum, the machinery which, were socialism accomplished, would regulate human life. But there is just one thing we do not talk much about, and that is, supposing the scholastic state a fact, supposing we arrive, what sort of men and women shall we be when we get there?
Concerning this phrase of the subject, even one of the uninitiated must be permitted to think. Though one dare not discuss the rights of capital or the future of trusts; though he avoid, with unspeakable devotion, all views of the single tax; though he keep a religious silence when contradictory definitions of wealth, value, utility, are hurled at his head,—he cannot shut out earnest speculations on the ethical and spiritual bearings of the socialistic ideal. And he has a right to think, and to speak his thought, though the world call him vague, popular, or sentimental.
For the issue between socialism and individualism is in essence not technical, but vita. Its ultimate sphere of discussion is the practical life of man. And, whether we will or no, whether we be radical or conservative, whether we derive our opinions from hearsay, from temperament, or from strenuous wrestling with truth, in this great science of human life we are perforce, by the very terms of existence, specialists each and all.
It is on great moral issues that the battles of the world are fought and won. The fate of such battles is not determined by the intellectual man, versed in technicalities, wise with the eternal policy of the expedient. It is determined by men who see truly because they see simply; who grasp some great principle out of a seeming tangle of confusion; who glow with moral passion. Peter, not Thomas, is the leader of the early church; Luther, not Erasmus, the hero of the reformation.
The issue between socialism and individualism is, I believe, the leading issue of this age-weary modern world. The men to come will envy us, as sharers in a battle greater than the antislavery struggle; greater than any phase in the eternal battle of the race for liberty since the convulsion of the Protestant Reformation set man free in the sphere of religion, as socialism promises to set him free in the sphere of economics. And it will be clear in retrospect, as it cannot be clear in experience, that the question which we are meeting is essentially broad, simple, ethical.
If this be so, it behooves us to question sharply the spiritual ideal inherent in socialism; for this ideal will really determine men’s judgments. It is not sufficient to show that the socialistic state will rest on a truer basis than the present order: we must also show that it will develop a nobler personality. Even that form of socialism known as Christian has not shown us this. In common with much earnest thought, it holds the present order to be corrupt at heart; it goes farther, and proclaims that the way of escape is to be found in the application of the teachings of Christ to the outward life of society and business, as well as to the inward life of the soul. But we must go farther yet. We need more than the recognition of evil, than the faith in a principle of escape. We need a distinct ideal to which we may advance. Unless such an ideal is manifest, socialism will never prevail. For, explain it how we will, not our facts but our ideals,—will-o’-the-wisps, mirages, though they may seem,—our ideals are the lights that fail not, the stars that lead not astray.
More and more is this question concerning the ethical value of socialism coming to the front. Everywhere men are beginning to ask, not “is socialism practicable?” but “Is it desirable?” The question is not easy to answer. Quite possibly men would be better off in the socialistic state; but it is much more important to know whether they would be any better. Socialism promises that everybody is to be comfortable; yet the end of life is not comfort, but character. What about character? What sort of spiritual environment shall we have? What moral incentives? These are the essential questions, after all. In our much talking about social mechanism, I think they have been in danger of neglect. Let us muse over them a little, and seek at least for the direction of answer.
I shall not attempt closely to define the socialistic state. I do not hold that it will imply collective ownership of the means of production. In the socialist state, as I conceive, material wealth will be distributed on the basis, not of service, but of need. Thus physical support will be insured to all. Absolute equality will not perhaps prevail, but outward conditions will be far more equal than at present. There will be no more violent extremes of riches and poverty, luxury and degradation. Those at the bottom will no longer need to strain every nerve lest the fiend starvation overtake them; those at the top will no longer be allowed to roll themselves in vast heaps of wealth. At both ends disproportion will be cut away; no amount of cleverness, snap, effort, will enable a man to get much ahead of his neighbor in the race for wealth, and society will tend towards a dead level of external equality.
I am not pretending to ask whether this can ever be done. In this discussion I take the liberty of assumption. I am only concerned with the result on character of a hypothetically achieved socialism.
A number of our wisest thinkers believe that the results would be disastrous. “All forms of socialism are forms of slavery.”—so Herbert Spencer calmly announces. “Materialism and socialism,” exclaims that clear, sad soul, Henri Frédèric Amiel, “two modern tendencies which ignore the true value of human personality, and blot it out in the collective life of nature or of society.”
Let us expand their thought. The value of life is in struggle; all individuality springs from the conflict with destiny. This conflict socialism would destroy. For our modern world–stern, strenuous, stirring, with its fierce and eager activities, its vigor, its suspense–socialism substitutes, what? A mechanism of dull monotony, a vulgarized and cockney ease. Now zest is found in contrast alone. All our artistic pleasure, all our romance, depend upon the strong alternations of light and shade. Take away suspense, and the dramatic element would vanish. What makes men care to live today, or exert themselves in living? The uncertainties of life,—the consciousness of the horror of black failure waiting to engulf them; of prizes to be won if they shall prove themselves the fittest to survive. In the socialist state, all this will go, and in consequence a desperate ennui, a profound world-weariness, will engulf the human race. To use a phrase of Matthew Arnold’s: “We shall all yawn in each other’s faces with imperturbable gravity.” We shall be bored to death.
Kingsley, in “Water Babies,” describes a race of men who lived in a delectable country. All day they sat under soft-foliaged trees, whence dropped into their laps the nicest little hot rolls. Roast pigs, small and succulent, trotted up to them, squealing enticingly, “Come eat me! come eat me!” But these happy people grew by degrees too lazy to pick up the rolls out of their laps; too lazy to bite the little pigs. Sad to say, that favored race perished by slow starvation, and the earth knew them no more.
Exactly this will happen in the socialist state. People will no longer be forced to work by the stringent fear of starvation; thus they will not work at all. We shall end by producing a race of dead-beats. And not only will interest and energy vanish; virtue, as we now conceive it, will cease to exist. Courage, endurance, industry,—the militant instincts,—will have no room to play in. Self-sacrifice and charity, with no one left on whom to exercise them, will die a natural death. The mechanical elimination of motives to crime may, indeed, produce a passive virtue, pallid with negation; but a full-blooded, self-disciplined, ascetic character, trained by denial, alert and vigorous through resistance, we shall see no longer. The full, free swing of individual competition which we have today is better than this characterless millennium. Many are crushed, physically and morally; this we do not attempt to deny. But the human struggle for existence is simply in line with the struggle in all nature; and it is out of the whirl and fight, the inexorable sternness of difficulties overcome, that evolution has produced its miracles. Human nature itself is a palimpsest of the battles of the past; and the law of conflict must ever, as heretofore, be the law of growth.
Now, this is a very dismal prophecy. And I must confess that all the advocates of socialism whom I know, even the noblest, lend it a good deal of countenance. Socialist Utopias seem to me dreary, lacking in color, interest, life; painfully dull in their suggestions of enervating material prosperity.
The difficulty is not modern. John Stuart Mill felt it clearly sixty years ago. His youth was filled with ardent hopes and plans for the future of humanity, though he had not at this time become a socialist. One day the thought came to him: Suppose his ideal realized, what would life mean? And the answer sprang from his soul in horrified surprise, Nothing! It would be hollow at heart. This discovery threw Mill into a profound melancholy, from which he only rallied by reading the poetry of Wordsworth,—a medicine which, excellent in its place, not the most ardent Wordsworthian would recommend as a solace for the entire human race. Nay, farther back than Mill we find the same suggestion, that if our present evils were removed, life would be hopelessly tame. The poet Shelly, who was a good communist, wrote us a lyrical drama, which he called the “Prometheus Unbound,” and which represents in all its first glow and glory the democratic ideal that we are trying to realize today. The poem is about humanity,—its torture, its bondage, its temptation, its redemption, its final bliss. All through the scenes of suffering and bondage the verse bounds and soars and sings. It is like sunlit waves of the sea, like clouds of dawn, like singing birds, like all that is rapturous with life. but as soon as the redemption is accomplished, and humanity set free, the verse flags and drops; the poem becomes stupid; we yawn over it, despite ourselves. All Shelly has to tell us is that men, when their ideal is reached, are to be “equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless, exempt from awe, workshop, degree;” and when we imagine them reduced to this freedom of black negation, we know that they must have been as tedious to themselves as the thought of them is to us.
When I come nearer home, and think of our more recent Utopias, I find much the same trouble. I confess that life which “Looking Backward” describes for us does not attract me in the least. In its smug materialism, its Philistine pervasiveness of comfort, it seems to me dismal. I would a great deal rather life in the nineteenth century–yes, even if I were a working-girl on five dollars a week–than in Mr. Bellamy’s twentieth century. William Morris, in his last Utopia, “News from Nowhere,” has felt this difficulty, and suggests a mode of escape. His old sage speaks to the waif of our world, who has wandered into an Epoch of Rest:—
“I can at least hint at one of the chief difficulties which had to be met, and that was that, when men began to settle down after the war, and their labor had pretty much filled up the gap in wealth caused by the destruction of that war, a kind of disappointment seemed coming over us, and the prophecies of some of the reactionists of past times seemed as if they would come true, and a dull level of utilitarian comfort be the end for a while of our aspirations and success….But, after all, this dull thundercloud only threatened us, and then passed over. Probably, from what I have told you before, you will have a guess at the remedy for such a disaster….That remedy was, in short, the production of what used to be called art, but which has no name among us now because it has become a necessary part of the labor of every man who produces.
And elsewhere he says:
“The spirit of the new days, of our days, was to delight in the life of this world; intense and almost overweening love of the very skin and surface of the earth on which man dwells, such as a lover has in the fair flesh of the woman he loves. All other moods save this have been exhausted.”
Thus Morris would find the meaning of life in art, in nature, and, he adds elsewhere, in love between the sexes. I confess that I am not quite satisfied. I find no progressive element in his idyllic pictures of the easy life to be. I do not admire the men and women he describes. Scope or incentive for the development of character, for the free play of the higher spiritual instincts, I here, as in all other socialist ideals with which I am familiar, fail to discover.
Yet, if socialism be not adapted to produce a higher character than the present order, of socialism we will have nothing. No, not though it bring never so much material comfort in its train; not though it bestow on humanity complete exemption from the grosser forms of vice.
But are these negative conditions of comfort and virtue really all that socialism can promise us? Despite the Utopias of the socialists, I do not think so. Let us search for ourselves the interests and incentives that will exist in the socialist state, and question whether men will be sunk in the dull mechanism of selfish routine, or set free for a fuller life of work and aspiration.
We shall be helped in our speculative enquiry by seeing what conditions now, in our present experience, prove most conducive to the development of character, and by comparing these conditions with those offered by socialism. When spring our great men,—great in moral heroism, in intellectual and imaginative reach, in active power?
If the advocates of individualism are right, we should expect to find them at the bottom of the social scale. There the inspiriting forces of competition have free play; there the sharp goad of necessity drives men to fiercest exertion; there rages that struggle for existence from whose clash and conflict, we are told, all heroisms, all most strenuous virtues, all clear and strong and forceful personalities, emerge triumphant.
Alas! For these fine, fancy pictures, one looks in vain in the ranks of the very poor. Instead of characters racy, bold, and free, you shall see, if you wander through workshops or slums, sodden faces, natures obtuse to finer issues. I think the testimony of all who have lived among the poor would agree that there is nothing to equal the dull monotony of their lives, the pathetic barrenness of their natures.
Do I say nothing? I mistake. In another region, in a remote sphere, the same characteristics reign. Think of our very rich; of our “leisure classes,” still, thank Heaven, small. Would you know its interests, its occupations, its aims? Read Ward McAllister, and you will rise from the book with a profound pity in your heart for our fashionable society, deep as any you can feel for the denizen of the slums.
Two classes in the community are hopelessly bored,—the very poor and the very rich. And from these two classes, today and in the long sequence of history, our great men do not spring.
They do not spring from extreme poverty; there, life is starved. They do not spring from extreme luxury; there, life is stifled.
They spring, I call all history to witness, from the ranks of the great middle class. They spring from conditions which neither enervate nor crush; conditions simple, austere, peaceful; summoning, tempting to work, but unless in rare cases, not forcing to it. The necessity of self-support has been in the background only of the consciousness of most great men. Shakespeare knew it not; nor Milton, nor Browning, nor Gladstone, nor Garibaldi, nor Gambetta. Carlyle knew it; but he refused to let it alter by one whit the grim earnestness with which he uttered unpopular truths, and alienated the British public. John Howard knew it not; nor Florence Nightingale, nor Arnold Toynbee, nor Father Damien. The long roll of statesmen, saints, poets, and philanthropists is made up principally, though of course not entirely, of men and women who were nurtured in conditions of simple competence and peace.
A life removed from sordid cares, yet freed from choking riches,—this is the life which, so far, has produced the highest type of character. This is the life which Jesus Christ commanded. He attacked the rich with unfaltering, revolutionary, sorrowful scorn. Almost, so He declared, was it impossible for a man clogged with riches to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But the people on whom He looked and said, “Blessed are ye poor,” were not the haggard, stunted, stupid products of our fierce competitive industries. They were the agricultural poor of Judaea,—a people, hardy, simple, used to labor, to fishing, tilling the soil, carpentry, and all useful trades; men free, in the healthful simplicity of their lives, untouched by worry or haste, to receive in brooding hearts the message of the Kingdom of God. From such men Christ chose those disciples who remodeled the world; of such men He himself was one.
Thus the conditions among which our greatest men are found, the conditions clearly inculcated by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ, are alike those which imply a comparative freedom from material anxieties and material interests. Just such conditions it is which socialism aims to make universal.
That socialism would imply absolute equality in material possessions is an assumption not yet proven. It would, however, as has been said, tend to equalize. It would insure to every man, whatever his mode of life, a reasonable, modest, constant maintenance at the hands of the state, thus removing at once material anxiety and material ambition. Our best characters, as we have seen, spring from conditions closely approximating to these. It is unreasonable to assume that a form of social organization would be wise which would insure to all the conditions proved most favorable to the few?
In return for maintenance, the state will demand from every man and woman a moderate amount of daily labor. And here we run against one of the stock objections to socialism,—an objection so ethical and so vital that we must stop to consider it. It is claimed that in the socialist state men will do no work.
The contention sounds reasonable enough. Place yon boot-black, scrubbing vigorously at his trade, in the socialist state. Behold his incentives vanish away! No fear that he go hungry if he fail to secure a certain number of five-cent shines; no more chances, on the other hand, that he attain the true democratic ideal of every boot-black, and become, he too, a second Jay Gould. Wherefore should the boot-black then black? He will abjure forever the blacking of boots. He will bask in the sun, consume unlimited tobacco, and rejoice in the social revolution.
The picture has the tints of life; but let us look at it more closely.
Your boot-black was “born tired.” He comes of an anaemic race, exhausted by generations of overwork, diseased and run to seed by life under unwholesome conditions.
Suppose—remember our liberty of assumption—suppose socialism to have been in force for three generations. That is, suppose that for three generations everybody had had enough to eat, drink, and wear, and decent houses to life in. A race of children would, it is fair to say, greet our eyes different from the languid, half-alive little waifs, who, with pitiful stolidity or a more pitiful and ghastly nervous vivacity, sport around the streets of our slums. We should doubtless not find a perfectly healthy people, but we should assuredly find a higher average physique than we find today.
Now, I claim that in people with a physical nerve and muscle nourished for a few generations back, the impulse to work, the delight in productive energy, is innate, instinctive, masterful.
Already, today, the work impulse is strong in the normal man. Every one wants to be busy. Every one feels the inspiration of a sharp summons to action. Who can see the rugged top of a mountain caressed by clouds without a tingling desire to climb thither? Who can think of a great art or science without the quivering of latent energy, longing to conquer? No sane man. What pleasure like that of a piece of work accomplished? What, except the delight of the doing? Few people are absolutely lazy. Even the votaries of pleasure work hard enough; and, preposterous as it may seem, many rich men and women are indolent, or, at least unproductive, simply because they do not know what to do; their labor is useless, often, simply because misdirected. It may be that this work-impulse is a late note of evolution; yet some animals possess it; and Adam, in the grand old story, is set, even before the Fall, to dress and keep the earth-garden. Be this as it may, in man as a product of Western civilization the impulse has come, and come to stay; and joy of productive activity is a primary instinct of every healthy soul. The lethargy of bequeathed exhaustion and the inertia of reaction are, I believe, responsible in our climate for the greater part of the indolence of the race. Numbers of people under our present system are not more than half alive. For these poor creatures, weak, stunted, or heavy in brain and body, little can be felt but the tenderness of sorrowful pity. A better day may surely come; a day when all may know, what many cannot know in this languid civilization, the simple rapture of doing; the delight of the athlete, whose austere activity thrills his every nerve and muscle with the joy of life.
And, beside this initial impulse, there will be plenty of incentives to work. The best work of a community, even in our hard-driven civilization, is not done for money; it has never been done for money. An army of the world’s workers—pioneers, physicians, statesmen—rise in protest against the debased pessimism of such a thought. Money is a correlative to labor; it is not—by all that is practical, as by all that is ideal, let us repudiate the idea—it is not the motive. The avoidance of starvation is not the only spur to work. Men have been known to scorn delights and live laborious days for the sake of winning praise from their fellow men. The desire for praise is mighty, insistent; demanding that men recognize the work as good, and honor the doer thereof. Honor is a stirring word: it drives soldiers to the act of death; might it not also drive them to the nobler act of useful life? In the very act of creation there is a mystic rapture; the blessed consciousness of power, which, whether it achieve a table or a poem, knows itself one with the productive energy of the universe. And, finally, we cannot ignore that sense which grows with our growing, and shall spread more and more as organic consciousness deepens, as as socialistic conditions prevail; the sense that every bit of work, however menial or dull, is accomplished not for the self, but for the all. The hour cometh when the performance of a bit of manual work shall be as distinct and happy a piece of service as watching the sick or feeding the hungry; for in those days we shall have learned that to help the positive productive of the world is as great as to care for its victims.
Joy of activity, joy of fame, joy of achievement, and joy of service,—these are the joys that might play upon the healthful, eager, sensitive organism, and draw it into a due share in the great labor of the world. And it is claimed that they will not be sufficient; that the fear of starvation must be added, or men, undeterred by cavant days or the pitying scorn of their fellows, will yield themselves to luxurious indolence, because, forsooth, they know that society will treat them kindly as it would treat a stray cat, and will give them shelter and food! Such a contention is false to all faith in our common humanity: more than this, it is false to the facts of human experience.
We have tried to show that socialism need not fear the development of an infesting horde of deadbeats, and also that its aim is to furnish to all the conditions which a partial experience has manifested to us as most potent in the production of character. It remains for us to go farther; to show, or at least to suggest, that socialism is the next phase, the logically inevitable phase, in that grand and gradual sequence of energy which slowly, firmly, by the operation of divinely natural law, is lifting man from the brute to the god.
For, if socialism be true, it must be shown not to deny, but to fulfill the past. It will eliminate none of those great and stern powers which have so far governed evolution in its progress from body to soul; it must show us those powers working in a higher sphere, with new stringency and new completeness. I believe that the study of the progressive action of such principles revealed by history, rightly apprehended, carries us straight, by purely scientific induction; to the threshold of the socialistic state.
I might seek to establish this statement through many a line of thought. I will choose one. It shall be taken from the latest word of the science of the human mind,—the “Psychology” of Mr. James. The subject under discussion is the Automatic Life.
“We must”—so he says in trenchant words—“we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can. The more of the details of human life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.” And he proceeds brilliantly to expound the scope which the aesthetic and intellectual life may know as the conscious volition becomes more and more relieved of the lower forms of activity. The principle which Mr. James applies to the individual I would apply to the social organism.
We all see how the development of life from babyhood to maturity depends upon this gradual subjugation of volition to instinct. Wretched is the man who has not learned this; to whom the acts necessary to physical wellbeing—eating, sleeping, dressing—are still the results of conscious effort. This law of progressive unconsciousness, as we may term it, obtains in the ethical as in the practical sphere. Holiness is that state where virtues, once painfully achieved, have become instinctive, automatic. The more of life is intrusted to the automatic sphere, the greater the range of our power. The individual advances by the progressive transference of physical and nervous functions from the sphere of volition to the sphere of instinct.
Now let us apply this law to the collective social body. We shall say: “Society advances by the progressive transference of those material functions necessary for its support from the sphere of conscious effort to the automatic region of instinctive achievement.”
Now this statement lands us straightaway in full socialism. Socialism demands nothing but this: that the functions of physical maintenance become in the social organism rather automatic than conscious; and that it would effect by in trusting that anxious supervision of physical needs and responsibility for physical support, which now falls upon the individual, to the collective whole, that is, to the state.
All civilization is, in one sense, but the record of this very process. The savage, one unit dissociated from his fellows in rude isolation, spends his entire vital force in defending his physical existence through war, or providing for it through the chase. The mediaeval knight, in a more organized state of society, is comparatively free for the development of higher virtues, and even to some degree of the arts; yet he also has for his main profession and occupation the struggle to protect the physical well-being of himself and others. The sequence is clear to the scholar or poet of our own day, who, relieved by the shelter of society from care for physical needs, spends his energy in conquering the world of thought. The more society removes from the individual the hampering anxiety for material sustenance, and insures his shelter from violence and need, the nearer we approach the ideal state. Socialism would be but the latest, perhaps not the final, stage in a continuous development.
For that this process is yet accomplished few would be found to claim. A fierce though secret dread of starvation lurks at the heart of modern life. It is safe to assert that the consciousness of nine-tenths of the community today is dominated, if not absorbed, by material cares. We are at a pitifully short remove from the savage. The greater part of our mental and physical power is imprisoned in the mechanism of life; in the effort of each man to provide for himself and his family food, shelter, clothing. Now the material functions must be performed. They must absorb a certain amount of time. We cannot live like those denizens of Mars imagined by Flammarion, who sustain themselves by breathing in sunshine, like the flowers. Socialism would demand from every one, and receive, as we have tried to show, from at least the majority, a constant quantity of honest, peaceful toil, sufficient in sum to supply the physical needs of the community. Just so the body has to eat and sleep, and plan for eating and sleeping. Work is holy. But worry is sinful; and it is worry which weighs down the lives of our men and women, which forms those harassed faces and nervous forms that surge in breathless procession through the business parts of our American cities. This worry springs from fear. At present, each man works in the dark, ignorant of the harmonious interaction of his power with other power.
Hence constant gnawing anxiety; hence feverish unrest; hence the weary tale of economic disturbance,—the uneven distribution of wealth, the spasmodic gluts of overproduction, the strikes, the riots, the dull discontent of modern life. Socialism claims that it would eliminate, not work, but worry. It would establish a general oversight over the whole field of human need. The organization and direction of labor, the plans for the creation and distribution of wealth, it would intrust to the state; and each individual would play his part, as peacefully assured of the wisdom of the general plan as a soldier in an army. We have already produced conditions which insure to the few freedom from gnawing, practical care; from these conditions, as we have seen, spring our greatest men. Is it Utopian to suppose that they might be extended? Work must be done; but socialism claims that it is possible to withdraw from work the element of selfish anxiety, and to transfer it to the unconscious life of the social organism. The claim is in absolute harmony with the scientific law which governs the advance of the race; it is the next step forward in a process already begun; the burden of proof rests, it seems to me, on those who deny, not those who affirm its possibility.
Thus we have tried to show, not only that socialism seeks to render universal the conditions which experience manifests to us as best, but also that it is in line with the entire sequence of harmonious evolution, and demanded as the next stage of development. We might have reached the same result more simply, more directly. The lucent words of Christ reveal as a moral duty that which history and psychology reveal as a natural law. Socialism would render possible, for the first time for centuries, literal obedience to the commands of the Master; it would enable men to “take no thought for the morrow,” for it would remove from them the necessity of constant thought for what they shall eat, what they shall drink, and wherewithal they shall be clothed.
Thus set free from the fierce and absorbing struggle for physical survival, what will be the value, the content, of human life? Nothing! say many. Man will sink back, material comfort once assured, in a mechanical and unspiritual prosperity.
Easily might we brand as pessimists and cynics men who take so low a view of our common humanity,—easily arraign them for ignorance of that witness of history which shows us freedom from sordid care as the primal condition of progress. Yet the fear is not strange. We think of our feverish and hunger-bitten world; of the tumultuous surge of conflict for existence which sways back and forth, breaking in foam of bitter passion in our midst, or tossing its spray upward in heroic, unavailing strife. We turn from this to the vision of a world of outward peace. No wonder that it seems to us at first stagnant and dull!
Yet even today, it is not from practical struggle that springs the deeds we honor most. The Christ hangs on the cross, not to bestow on men a physical benefit, but to win for them spiritual redemption.
We cast our eyes into the future, into that socialist state which assuredly shall one day be. What do we see?
Not a Utopia. No socialists are fools enough to claim that any change of social machinery would radically alter the spiritual conditions of human life,—would eliminate suffering, disease, and pain. There is no fear lest trouble and difficulty be removed from our path, and men find themselves in an enchanted garden of ease.
Not a dead level of characterless monotony. Character only emerges as we escape from the barren individualism of the savage state. Material equality does not imply spiritual equality, neither does the removal of material conflict imply the cessation of struggle. Character is not leveled today, its infinite play is not checked, by equality before the law. Neither would its fascinating and subtle variations be impeded by equality of possessions.
Not a sinless world. Socialism promises no heaven where men shall bask in the sunshine of lazy sainthood. No fear that plenty of evil will remain to form the spice of life! The same old humanity will meet us; men and women with the same insistent passions, the same sorrowful temptations. A radical change in human nature socialism does not promist nor require.
What it does promise is this: the uplift of the struggle of humanity to a higher plane, the removal of certain external clogs and shackles that bind down to the earth the free spirit of man.
Far from being free for spiritual development, our present society is held in degraded bondage to the flesh. We see extremes of bitter poverty and fatuous luxury, alike deathful to the spirit, alike contrary to the commands of Christ. We see even our middle class held by material struggle; society as a whole absorbed by the dominant and feverish consciousness of physical need. When this bondage shall be relaxed, when that rush for wealth which is the swinging of the pendulum away from the fear of starvation shall be no more, then will unfold countless delicate, spirited powers unguessed today in the dreary uniformity of money-making. Longing for glory, longing for truth, longing for service, will play upon a humanity responsive, high mettled, eager. Socialism will produce neither a race of saints, nor a race of heroes; human nature will remain what it is,—strange mixture of divinity and brutality. But it may produce a race of men ready to enter with new zest the domain of new interests which we are today too heavily burdened to explore.
Let us think for a moment what some of those interests may be. They press upon us, clamoring for speech! A hundred voices will summon us, a hundred ambitions draw us, a hundred delights entice. We need not speak again of the buoyant pleasure in practical work which shall be the heritage of all healthy men and women. Beyond and above this, the world glistens with radiant possibilities.
Here, to begin with, is the whole sphere of art,—art realistic and ideal, e.g., art which seeks accurately to reproduce the wondrous beauty of the world, art which seeks rather to embody the subjective experience of the artist. We may not, indeed, agree with Mr. Morris, that art would be a sufficient occupation for the human race; but a glorious play it is, and for three centuries men have had no chance to play it for freedom. Think what cities might be—nay, what they have been—when men built in peace and gladness, no longer from fear of hunger or of the sullen frown of an employer, but from love of the work itself! Think what pictures might render vivid the great story of the world’s waking hours, or the greater story of its dreams! Think what poems remain unsung! This is no sentimental dreaming. There was a Florence in the thirteenth century. What has been may be once more.
Then, there is all the world of thought which awaits us. Truths enough remain to be won, in the sphere of the natural world, in the subtler sphere of the brain and soul. Science and philosophy are yet in their infancy. Here is the chance for consecration, for ardent sacrifice, for strenuous effort. No indolence can conquer the secrets of nature. The vigils of the future shall wrest new knowledge from the stars. Years of unregarded heroism shall end in flashing on the grateful world more hidden secrets of the mystery of human life. It is safe to predict that, when material well-being is secured, intellectual activity will be multiplied ten-fold in militant vigor. Even today, in our sodden world, scientific and aesthetic passion assert themselves, and the fact is a perpetual witness to the buoyant indestructibility of spirit. But it must be that much power is wasted; that many a latent intellect is held today in bondage by the harsh necessity of ceaseless mechanical labor. Yes, and further: the scientist or philosopher is rare—he is day by day growing rarer—who can serenely pursue his high and recondite wisdom undisturbed by the moans of his fellows, the sorrow of a kindred humanity. The spiritual atmosphere does not foster today the detachment necessary to intellectual effort. It is thunderous, muttering; it fills men with a nameless unrest. Let the storm burst, let the air be clear; then may we bend us to our tasks again, consecrate to the stern and arduous search for the purity of truth: but not yet, my friends, not yet.
Art, science, philosophy,—these are much. These, even, are not enough. Man has an aesthetic nature that craves to receive and produce beauty; he has an intellectual nature that strains ever towards the true; but, more than these, first, last, and deepest, he is a spirit. And, whatever may be true of the others, it is at least certain that the spiritual life is a life of action. The soul has to be lost before it can be found. The self has to be vanquished: for this we are sent into the world.
A critic of socialism quotes faust:—
“‘For man’s activity sleeps all too easily,
And so I gave to him to be his mate
A Devil, who will stir and work and must create.’
Socialism is the Lemures canal. Take care, dear Lemure! if you drain the marsh of inequality you are digging Faust’s grave. He will have no spur, and stagnate and die.”
He is right. The intellectual and aesthetic life cannot produce the miracle of full personality. For this we must have the scope, the stir, the passion of moral struggle. There must be temptation to goad us, high sacrifice to inspire, causes to life and die for. We seek the clash of truths, the call to suffer. Through action alone—action strenuous and militant—can salvation be wrought and the soul mount higher to its source. Without darkness, no lights; without sin, no holiness; without possible failure, no glory of victory.
O fools and slow of heart to suppose that Socialism could ever obliterate this struggle; that any change in the social order could put an end to the eternal battle, breathless, wearisome, glorious, wherein the soul has ever won its spurs! No danger that the Devil, our God-given companion, desert us; no danger lest an equal distribution of wealth entail uniformity of nature! Certain external elements of romance may vanish with the lessening of outward gloom: the novels of Dickens would no longer be possible. But the inward romance of the spirit, with its contrasts of joy and pain, its heroisms, its ardors, its tense efforts, its silent sacrifices,—all this would remain. Remain? It would develop in a way we hardly imagine. If I mistake not, our interest today tends more and more away from material conflict to the subtler conflicts of the soul. The scene of our life drama is shifting to the inward stage; we are learning that the fight between good and evil is no less deadly when the combatants are thoughts than when they are acts. Our modern fiction reflects this change, in most interesting form. Books like “John Inglesant,” like “Robert Elsmere,” like “Middlemarch,” might essentially have been written in the socialist state. They can hardly be called devoid of passion or of problem. We can see a Dorothea bending her fair spirit to save the soul of her mean rival; we see in real life a man who has spent years in perfecting an invention destroying his machine in silence because another man, whose need of fame is greater than his own, has made the same discovery; we see, again, a man withdrawing from a friendship which has been as wine to him, because his presence casts a shadow between wife and husband. And we realize that there is no danger lest opportunities for heroism fail us, and lest no battles remain to fight.
This transference from outward to inward, from physical to spiritual, is the law of all human development. A Darwin, not an Achilles; a Father Damien, not an Aeneas—is the hero of modern life. Already the literature of external conflict begins to have for us a symbolic rather than a literal value. Already, as we read of the wrath of an Achilles, of the rage of a Macbeth, we translate these titanic woes into the language of the inward life. Socialism will never eliminate struggle; it will simply free us from the crude battle with material obstacles for the contest with spiritual foes. And it is reasonable to expect that life in the future, in delicacy, in fire, in sensitiveness to fine moral issues, will bear to our own life the relation which ours bears to the fierce and crude morality of the elder world.
This change is in harmony with the teachings of Christ himself. Our Lord Jesus transferred the external commands of the Mosaic law to the region of the mind and heart. This more secret and subtle wisdom, incomprehensible to the Hebrews of old, we, too, fail fully to apprehend; yet into its high mystery we are bound to penetrate more and more.
Socialism is often condemned as expecting by external and mechanical means to affect the free spirit of man, to achieve through outward reform what can only be achieved through the purification of the heart. The question is scornfully asked, Does socialism—the change in material conditions—expect to make better men and women? And the answer must come clearly. In one sense, no. We cannot emphasize this thought too often. Socialism makes no claim to achieve redemption by machinery. But it does claim that this translation of the struggle of man to a higher and more inward sphere is in line with the process of evolution; deeper far, that is the method of Christ himself. The kingdom of God is within us, and that kingdom it is the progressive effort of society to set us free to seek. The removal of incentives to crime does not, indeed, create virtue. The girl who walks the street, the drunkard in the dramshop, may be better in God’s sight than you or I. Yet we fight the dramshop, and bring up our young girls in homes we seek to render pure. The whole civilization enjoyed by our upper and middle classes—our churches, schools and homes—bears witness to our faith in the powers of environment. Why should we deny this power when the question of extension arises? If the delicate daughters of the rich are products of whom our society may be more proud than of the girls in the slims, the inference seems clear: let us place the second class under the conditions enjoyed by the first. There is an old prayer which reads, “Lead us not into temptation.” The shelter which civilization now affords for the favored few is the effort to realize this prayer in part; socialism is the effort to realize it for all.
I claim, then, to summarize, the socialism is no demand for a destructive evolution, but the next step upward in the journey of the human race. This is made evident, whether we look at the teachings of science or of faith.
Observation tells us that a condition of moderate wealth most favors the development of character; the science of the human mind suggests to us that life advances through intrusting its lower functions more and more completely to the unconscious and automatic life. Christ bids us take no thought for the morrow. These possibilities socialism, and socialism alone, promises to fulfil.
The law of development shows us the interest and value of life progressively transferred from the outward to the inward sphere. Christ translates the Decalogue from terms of act to thought. This process socialism promises to continue.
In socialism the incentives of labor, of art, of thought, of service, will play with new power on the enfanchised nature of man. Then, as now, will be scope for moral struggle; for the choice between love and self. Only in this struggle the men of the future may, if they will, be strengthened with a new power; for the socialistic state will render possible what is hardly possible today,—literal obedience to the commands of Christ.
It is possible to claim that when Socialism is realized, the fire of life will be gone, and men sink into indolent comfort. It is possible; but only for a pessimistic nature, devoid of faith in man, in science, and in God. Devoid of faith in man must be he who claims that, if the bare necessary of physical maintenance be removed, honor will avail nothing, ambition nothing, love nothing, to impel to effort strenuous and poor. Devoid of faith in natural law must he be if he believes that the result of aeons of patient evolution is this sorry creature on a moral level with the brutes. Devoid of faith in God must he be; for if man be of the earth alone, it is possible to conceive him, when earthly incentives are removed, sinking into animal ease: not so if he be formed in the image of the Heavenly. There is a spark of the Infinite in his finiteness and so he cannot pause. Step by step, urged onward by an imperious inward stress, he must struggle upward to his Source. Stage by stage he must leave behind him the false dreams of physical strife, the antagonism to his fellows, the sharp pursuit of his individual needs. He will not leave sorrow, he will not leave temptation. At every step will appear new evils to be conquered. This his curse is also his blessing, for only in battle can the soul of man be strengthened for immortality. But these evils will become ever more subtle, more mysterious, more inward; and the soul that treads them underfoot shall mount by them to ever new regions of holiness and power. For this struggle—ceaseless, eternal, glorious; the struggle upward, by means of the perfect law of liberty, into celestial light—I believe that socialism will, in wonderful and unforeseen measure, set free the soul of man.