Problems of Anarchism


4.—Economic Fallacies vs. Property.

I am as desirous to be frank and avoid sophistical surprises in the course of the argument as I am anxious to convince the reader of its soundness in foundation and correctness in conclusion.

The conviction that is irresistibly forced upon me as the result of an unprejudiced investigation, conducted with tolerable care and some familiarity with the subject, is that modern Communists, whether of the imperfect type of cast-iron Socialists, like Gronlund and Bellamy, the modified school of quasi-scientific and evolutionary Social Democrats, like G. B. Shaw, Sidney Webb, and H. M. Hyndman, or the motley groups of revolutionary free Communists usually called Anarchists, the greatest of whom is probably Pierre Kropotkine, are from an economic standpoint substantially the same.

The basis of all their criticisms of existing social conditions are economically identical, and converge in a demand for the abolition of private property. It is needless to demonstrate the Communism of those who themselves accept the appellation, but many of the advocates of its milder forms would repudiate identity with its more logical and consistent exponents.

Free Communists like Morris avow their belief in an absolute equality of condition according to the formula To each according to his needs, from each according to his capacities. This necessarily involves the abolition of private property. The Communists who style themselves Anarchists accept the same creed, and attempt to prove that it expresses the tendency of civilization; nay, they go still farther, and, accepting the doctrine of evolution, argue that the realization of their ideas is its necessary outcome. Says Kropotkine in the work previously quoted, The prejudice in favor of private property is passing away. ... The tendency of the nineteenth century is toward free Communism,—not from the brains of philosophers and thinkers, but germinating in the thoughts of the working masses.

Now, hear the political economists of the Fabian Society. In demonstrating the economic basis of Socialism G. B. Shaw takes us through the laws of rent, exchange, value, wages, etc., as set down by political economy, without, however, adding much to dispel the fog in which it is still enveloped. Summing up the result he says:

This then is the economic analysis which convicts private property of being unjust even from the beginning, and utterly impossible as a final solution of even the individualist aspect of the problem of adjusting the share of the worker in the distribution of wealth to the labor incurred by him in its production. All attempts yet made to construct true societies upon it have failed. ... That our own civilization is already in an advanced stage of rottenness may be taken as statistically proved. That further decay instead of improvement must ensue if the institution of private property be maintained is economically certain. Fortunately private property in its integrity is not now practicable. (Essays in Socialism, pp. 23–24, 1890.)

This quotation epitomizes the whole book. Here we have the essence of the teaching of every school of Communism, in the most careful, rational, unrevolutionary, and scientific popular work that has yet appeared; not from the pen of an irresponsible and imaginative story-teller lacking clear knowledge of economic principles, but the collaborated efforts of practical political economists abreast of the scientific and sociological teaching of our time. For this reason alone have I introduced it here and shall use it as the mirror of those views of which it is my purpose to prove the unsoundness.

If we find that such an attack upon the principle of private property has no valid foundation, and that it is due not to any facts or proved conclusions to be found therein, we may then dispense with the necessity of discussing the point with less rational, less able, and more imaginative and revolutionary opponents of the institution of individual property. Before proceeding with the argument, I shall give some further extracts in order to conclusively show that no real economic difference exists between the Social Democrats and the extremest Communists. On page 131 we are told that the respect for the rights of property has diminished since the many lost their individual possessions (!); it is now little more than a tradition inherited from a former state.

In the essay on Property under Socialism, page 139, we read: To whatever extent private property is permitted, to that extent the private taking of rent and interest must be also permitted. If you allow a selfish man to own a picture by Raphael, he will lock it up in his own room, unless you let him charge something for the privilege of looking at it. Such a charge is at once interest. If we wish all Raphael’s pictures to be freely accessible to everyone, we must prevent men, not merely from exhibiting them for payment, but also from owning them. This argument applies to other things besides Raphael’s pictures. Then follows the doctrine of socialization of capital, etc., and public organization of labor.

I am tempted here to analyze the above statement, which is Communistic in the baldest manner, and show its utter ridiculousness, but pause a moment first.

It will have been observed that I did not discuss the grounds, which are set out in some twenty pages preceding the extract I have given, upon which G. B. Shaw convicts private property of being unjust even from the beginning. Why not? Because after the most sympathetic examination of his evidence I find not one single reason, neither fact, law, nor inference, no ground whatever for convicting private property, as I understand it, of any of the enormous crimes laid at its door. The only possible explanation I can give of this paradox is that before the writer of the Economic Basis of Socialism began the work he entertained an opinion against private property; and in reviewing the teachings of political economy as well as in stating the evils that exist in the industrial world today he naturally throws all the blame upon that institution. But not one single evil, not even that most pessimistic economic law of subsistence wages, does he trace to private property as the primary cause.

With just as much reason we might say it was the desire of obtaining happiness with the least exertion that has produced economic evils, and could trace them to that tendency in mankind with as much logical proof as the Fabian essayist adduces to show their origin in the desire of man to own property.

In a later portion of this work I shall take up this question and show the nature of the fallacy common to all Communistic Socialists of sacrificing effects to causes that are not causes at all, but merely preceding conditions, which are themselves only effects of causation further removed and not as plainly seen. We shall then, I trust, see the true economic causes of the evils of capitalism. But in order to do so we must clear away the rubbish of prejudice, misconception, false theories, and impossible remedies in which nearly all writers and social panacea vendors have succeeded in burying the real issues.

Returning to our last extract from Essays in Socialism, let us endeavor to find its meaning. Passing over the error of taking as an example a rare picture impossible to duplicate to show that wealth, most of which can be reproduced indefinitely, should not be made private property, we shall take the argument as it stands. And indeed it behooves us to make the best of it, for it is the only direct attempt in the whole book to prove in the concrete that common or public property is a wise and necessary arrangement, and that private property is the reverse.

The first assumption that rent and interest are due to private property is not proven in any part of the work. We shall see in the course of our inquiry that on the contrary both rent and interest are the result of monopoly, of restricted individual liberty, and of the consequent limitation of private property. We are next told that, if we admit a man’s right to do, use, or possess a certain thing, say to own a picture,—a piece of property,—he may abuse that right, may act wrongly, or want to impose on others. Therefore we must deny the right, and this argument applies to other rights which he might abuse.

In other words, it is just to deny a man’s rights because he may not exercise them properly; it is unjust to permit anyone to own anything because some one may not be satisfied with merely owning something.

According to this mode of reasoning no man should be allowed to possess defensive weapons because it is easy to conceive of circumstances in which he would injure others; it would be justifiable to deprive all men of freedom and imprison them forever because some men abuse their liberty and commit aggressions.

Now, if, instead of dealing with imaginary evils which might arise under some circumstances, and making private ownership responsible for abuses of which it is merely the instrument, but not the cause, we were to seek what would be the natural consequences which would flow from free conditions unhampered by evils and abuses that are no essential part of the property institution, and find the natural[*] results under natural conditions, then we should avoid the absurdities which the above method of reasoning entails.

There is one thing which easily explains many of the fallacies into which Socialists have fallen in reasoning upon economics. They have habitually taken the conclusions and generalizations of a crude and immature economic science, especially where it coincided with the Socialistic pessimism which sees nothing but evil in the existing order and prophesies increased misery, constitutional decay, and a speedy and violent end for our whole civilization. So that they have fallen easy victims to the traps prepared for them by bourgeois economists, who, finding things so bad, and having no other function than to justify them, have set to work and constructed theories to fit into the ever shifting facts, and then labeled them laws, the laws of Political Economy, with as much effrontery as if they had discovered the law of gravitation or invented the atomic theory. The law of rent, the law of wages, the iron law, as it has been fitly named, though it would have been still more aptly styled the cast-iron law, for it will break in pieces with the first fall,—these pessimistic generalizations were seized upon by Socialists, whole systems built upon them, theories woven, and history written years in advance upon the strength of the structures thus raised, all of which has proven as delusive as the foundation upon which it was erected. This will be sufficiently exemplified with ample evidence in due course. I touch upon it here merely to show cause why the otherwise able Socialists of the Fabian Society have accomplished so little of positive results, unless it has been to fill the air with decomposed dust of the dry bones they have shaken up with so much vigor and skill.

Generally speaking, Socialist economics are Marxian economics, which in turn are of the uncertain and suspicious nature just described. Social Democrats, Communists, and Revolutionaries alike accept their economic reasoning from this source. The works I have referred to bear evidence on every page. Witness also the chapters from Marx’s Capital, which Albert R. Parsons gives as the economic basis of his Philosophy of Anarchism. The erroneous nature of this teaching will shortly be demonstrated.

The latter portion of this article may seem a digression from the main course of the argument; it could hardly be avoided, however, in dealing with the economic arrangements of the avowed opponents of private property. The next will also partake in the digression, as it will review some other considerations, not directly dealing with property alone, but still closely related to it.

[*] I use the word natural here in the sense of being free from artificial and unnecessary conditions—anti-normal—statist; of course everything that is may be called natural.

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