Problems of Anarchism


2.—Economic Development Prior to Capitalism

Let us return to the dawn of history, taking a rapid view of man’s economic development. Self-preservation, the need for food, urged him in common with other animals to exertion. But, like those, he exerted himself only when driven by hunger. Work he hated from the beginning. Naturally a lazy animal, he got knowledge by degrees, and, growing as cunning in wisdom as the ants, he discovered the use of slaves. Fighting with the sub-human denizens of the pristine wilds they together inhabited, first for existence, then for supremacy, he was driven to herd with others of his species. Mutual aid in some degree was a condition essential to self-preservation. Because man was individually weaker than and physically inferior to many of his competitors. But from struggling with these he got to battling with his own race. Perhaps it was first among the members of the same herd contesting over the carcass of some common foe they had slain that human struggles began. Anyway it became habitual for hordes of men to fight. Prisoners captured would be slain in the earliest stages. At length some skill in obtaining food was developed. As soon as a man could procure more sustenance in a day than he could consume, it was more prudent to keep the captives and exploit their labor. But this idea could be the result only of very slow growth. Primitive man would take a long time to reason out the point, though he were spurred on to thought both by his desire for food and by his aversion to labor for it. Whether he first made slaves of the children, the females, or the captives belonging to a rival tribe is immaterial here. Man had slaves to do his work as early as he found them profitable to him.

In the communistic republican tribe they were not absent. And in the after stage of chieftainship and aristocracy slavery became a basic institution. The usages of different races of men varied much in this part of their growth in regard to slavery. Among some it was much more general and intensely developed than among others. In many a large part of the work was done by free laborers, who nevertheless, by reason of their labor, were always accounted of an inferior class. In the earlier societies of ancient Greece all manual labor was done by slaves, but when Rome began to assert herself there were artisans who were no longer slaves. At the height of her power and towards her downfall the free proletarians formed a numerous class. It can hardly be said that the free workmen of those times were better off than the slaves. Some of them, however, became shopkeepers and merchants. Speaking generally, we may say that until long after Christianity was commonly accepted, chattel slavery was the condition of the laboring masses. Workman, wealth-producer, slave were convertible terms. The need of freedom was present all the while. Vast uprisings, rebellions, bloody wars, century after century attest the fact. They were men, they dreamt of liberty, and a deliverer, a saviour, a messiah, was ever pictured in their hopes and aspirations. More than one of this class at various times and places turned up to supply the demand. But the economic bondage of the workers outlived them all.

Among the masses thus enthralled the ethics of the Christian teaching found a fruitful soil already prepared to assimilate the seed. Its morality, its ideas of the equality of men, a bright and happy hereafter, a scant respect for the rich, and community of goods could not fail to be attractive to the legally de-humanized, robbed, and oppressed laboring population of slaves. So it had become their common belief before it was adopted officially in the Roman Empire. Doubtless this system of morals, obtaining general acceptance, had considerable influence in working out the economic change which replaced slavedom by serfdom as the lot of the people. To modern notions ancient slavery cannot always be grasped in its real light. The number of the lowly was so enormous in comparison with the number of the free population. In Attica the former counted twenty to one of the latter. The other Greek States had even a greater disproportion. And in the later times of the Roman Empire we find the slaves replacing the free workers, being cheaper in competition with them; and they are placed upon the land, the vast estates of the rich, gradually losing the slave condition for the scarcely less onerous state of serfs, attached immovably to the soil. This change did not occur all at once or everywhere in the same way. It often grew out of the conditions of foreign conquest, the conqueror permitting the subdued tillers of the soil to remain upon it by accepting his terms,—enforced labor, military service, share of the produce, and other dues. When this was fully developed, it constituted the feudal system, a machine of wheels within wheels from the highest to the lowest; the place of each fixed by status and everyone having power over those next below him and being strictly bound to those immediately above, from the king who was absolute, in theory at any rate, down to the chattel workers, considered the same kind of property as the soil they labored upon. The operation of this system accomplished one striking change. The free workers were gradually absorbed into it. In this reign of status none could survive who had not their proper place in the social hierarchy. Hence in self-preservation the proletarians were driven to give up their freedom. None remained outside but a few vagrant tramps, who were hanged on sight without ceremony. This wholesome custom, which might still be recommended to the authorities in dealing with that modern nuisance, the unemployed, was in effective operation as late as the end of the sixteenth century both in England and on the continent.

Out of the feudal system grew the towns, the inhabitants of which again worked out their freedom, increasing in numbers largely through the continual addition of escaped serfs from the land. I am not pretending to give a history either of the birth, growth, or decay of feudalism, but merely indicating the lines of economic change. Now, there are some learned writers of the present day who avow that the working classes enjoyed a very considerable measure of liberty, peace, and prosperity during the later stages of that system. In short, they tell us that the serfs were better situated than are the masses today under the system of capitalism. Nobody, however, can doubt, I think, that in other ways than economic the difference in favor of liberty then and now is vast. Nor is a comparison even from a purely economic point of view between former states and the unprecedented developments of modern times likely to prove favorable to the past. One question arises which in any case demands our best attention. Has the economic side of individual freedom kept pace with its growth in other directions, and with the gigantic enlargements of productive power and general economic improvement?

It is admitted on all sides, not only by Socialistic reformers, but by the ablest of independent thinkers, that the evils of the prevailing economic system are widespread and intense, and the lot of the free workers by no means commensurate with the revolution which has taken place in the industrial world. Scarcely any one can be found who denies that improvement is desirable, and but few who would say it is not necessary. The growing belief in the theory of evolution is of necessity attended by the hope, nay, the certainty, of a betterment in the condition of the industrial classes, of the diminution of the glaring economic and social evils that exist, and of a higher form of society than has yet appeared on the planet.

Unfortunately agreement ends here. If one wishes to learn the bottom causes that produce these evils and to know the true method which ought to be pursued in order to eliminate them, a thousand answers, confusing and contradictory, are given in reply. On this rock all ships of social reform are shattered. Hopes are sustained and theories built sky-high, but owing to the instability of the foundation are one after another undermined, topple over, and are finally dashed to pieces. An inadequate grasp of causes seems to me to be the central weakness of all past and present schemes of social and economic improvement. A clearer perception of the origin and nature of things is the only way I know of avoiding this error. An application of principles established upon demonstrated facts must replace the common method of studying social phenomena and economic conditions by empirical generalizations and preconceived theories. The latter is the usual method of most Socialists.

In the course of this inquiry I hope to examine the leading ideas of the more prominent among them as well as the teachings of economists generally upon the causes of the evils that press so persistently for solution. But before starting on a task of such magnitude, the temerity of which can be excused only by the hope that, if it be not well performed, if the errors still remain, and the mists which already surround it be not removed, I may at least reduce them,—before proceeding to this work another question must be investigated: the persistence of the idea of political authority must be accounted for and its nature and claims defined; and then with the result we shall be able to correlate the facts before set down, and thus show the nature and position of individual freedom in relation to the subject of our inquiry.

This article is part of a serial: Problems of Anarchism.