Problems of Anarchism


5.—Socialists and the Social Organism.

The enlightened modern opponents of private property not only allege that they can demonstrate its abolition to be the certain outcome of evolution,—economic, industrial, moral, and historic,—but also claim that this end is being furthered by the vast and ever growing productions of modern legislators, and that it is the ultimate goal of Democracy. With this purpose in view they exploit the theory of the social organism, accepting it with as little discrimination as they have displayed in adopting general evolutionary teaching on which to construct their pleasant theories of hopeful delusions. Society is an organism, they say; therefore the perfect development of each individual is not necessarily the highest cultivation of his own personality, but the filling of his humble function in the great social machine. Hence the coördination of functions through government regulation is a progressive and beneficent step in the evolution of the organism, society. The enlargement of the power of authority and the function of the State is hailed with joy and trumpeted in notes of evolution by the champions of the new social order to be erected on the ruins of individual property.

So we find Socialists and other writers of this type devoting their literary talents to exemplify and eulogize the growth of laws for the regulation of industry and the limitation of private property; pointing with unbounded admiration to the State and governmental direction and gradual absorption of multitudinous enterprises of general utility,—all in the name and for the imaginary welfare of the community. Numerous prominent examples could be given to show the delight with which such writers hail every manifestation of paternalism. To cite one of the ablest will at present, however, suffice. Sidney Webb, the Socialist-Economist, writing on the Historic Basis of Socialism in the essays before referred to, draws a glowing picture of the rapid growth in recent times of governmental inspection, regulation, and organization of labor, showing the extension of authoritative activity into a bewildering variety of fields; from letter-carrying at a low charge to the gratuitous provision of novel reading, medicine, and midwifery; from the maintenance of penitentiaries, art galleries, slaughter houses, and courts of justice to the licensing and inspection of dancing rooms, dogs, lawyers, and brothels. The citizen, we are boastingly informed, is now furnished, willy-nilly, with free schooling gratis weather predictions, and the putrefaction of compulsory vaccination without cost. Selah!

Accepting the view of the social organism as formulated by philosophic evolution, it is unhesitatingly assumed that the above line of development indicates a healthy growth, which will gradually eliminate both individual property and enterprise and thereby establish the millennium of social perfection. Mr. Webb tells us that it still rests with the individual to resist or promote the social evolution, consciously or unconsciously, according to his character and information. The importance of complete consciousness of the social tendencies of the age lies in the fact that its existence and comprehensiveness often determine the expediency of our particular action; we move with less resistance with the stream than against it. (Fabian Essays, p. 50.)

I have italicized the words in the quotation which seem to me to unfold the cardinal error at the bottom of his whole social philosophy. Taken along with the assumption already made clear that the social tendencies of the age are in the line of unlimited governmental extension, it displays commendable worldly wisdom on Mr. Webb’s part to become a State Socialist and move with the stream. But his loose method of reasoning really begs the whole question. If we treat society as an organism, we must first decide wherein healthy growth consists; we must determine how far the analogy with the individual organism holds good, and make clear the distinctions, if any exist, and, above all, we must make sure that the tendencies beloved of Mr. Webb are in the true sense progressive , and not organically retrogressive, before we fling ourselves into the line of least resistance to float only with the stream.

The neglect of these precautions, essential in a scientific treatment of social economics, has landed this school of reformers in a maze of contradictions, absurdities, and hopeless confusion, from which they are by no means likely to extricate themselves.

The Fabian Socialists profess to be diametrically opposed to the sociological views of Herbert Spencer, while at the same time borrowing from him whatever substratum of truth there is in their conception of the social organism. In the Moral Basis of Socialism , we find nothing but a transposed and imperfect version of the evolutional theory of ethics as worked out by Spencer in his Synthetic Philosophy. So also we have Sidney Webb declaring that a society is something more than an aggregate of so many individual units,—that it possesses existence distinguishable from those of any of its components. … The community must necessarily aim, consciously or not, at its continuance as a community: its life transcends that of any of its members; and the interests of the individual must often clash with those of the whole. … Without the continuance and sound health of the social organism no man can now live or thrive; and its persistence is accordingly his paramount end. (Fabian Essays, pp. 56, 57.)

All of which, except the final clause, is manifestly Spencerian . But, to show how little is really comprehended of the doctrine he attempts to exploit, I shall give one more quotation before proceeding to demonstrate the erroneous nature of the Fabian conception of the social organism. After giving examples of the necessity of certain qualities proper to the military type of society, which he evidently makes no attempt to distinguish from the industrial type, though his ideal society belongs exclusively to the latter, he informs us that we must take even more care to improve the social organism, of which we form part, than to perfect our own individual development. Or, rather, the perfect and fitting development of each individual is not necessarily the utmost and highest cultivation of his own personality, but the filling, in the best possible way, of his humble function in the great social machine. We must abandon the self-conceit of imagining that we are independent units, and bend our jealous, absorbed in their own cultivation, to this subjection to the higher end, the common weal. (P. 58, ibid.)

The italicized portion, together with the last sentence, furnish unmistakable evidence that the author never reached the true and scientific conception of the social organism. The above is utterly at variance with any sound theory of organic growth and development, even without noting the fundamental distinction between the hypothetical social organism and the actual organization of the living animal. In consideration of the intelligence and erudition of its propounder, I feel not a little diffident in characterizing it as it deserves. The argument is fitly crowned with the ultimatum that liberty must be subordinated to equality, that the latter in social science is more important than the former. (See p. 59, ibid.) A conclusion as impotent as it is reactionary.

One of the first principles of biological science is that organic evolution consists of a differentiation of functions. The lowest forms of life are almost homogeneous, there is no separation of parts for the purpose of life -sustaining acts. Complexity denotes advancement. When the organism evolves heart, lungs, brain, and so forth, it attains a higher form of life. And the highest of all manifestations of sentient existence yet evolved, a civilized man, shows the greatest specialization, the most complete separation of the functions which combine their work in the life of the perfect organism. Mark: the development of a living organism is characterized by the separation of each part, by its specialization for the performance of certain functions, each organ doing its own work and in the healthy state confining itself solely to the work it is fitted to perform. The greater the degree to which this physiological division of labor has attained, the more perfect is the animal. True, this implies a combination, which, however, arises naturally, without artificial or conscious arrangement; and life was of a lower form before the differentiation and specialization set in; it is the separation and consequent heterogeneity, in distinction to the combined homogeneity, that denotes progress.

What is biologically true of individual life in this respect is observed to hold good in the life of society. Not only is the sociological differentiation a measure of human development, but it is equally so in all other gregarious creatures. Yet we are asked to believe that a process the reverse of this, the return from differentiated functions exercised by highly specialized parts of the social organism, individuals and groups spontaneously combined, to the homogeneous structure in which all social, economic, and regulative functions converge toward one point, collective ownership, is the certain tendency of social evolution: we are to accept this phase of a transitory stage as the true goal and highest aim of a civilized society. Moreover, in so far as such a tendency does exist, it is quite possible to furnish a rational and satisfactory explanation of its import and origin without recourse to the system adopted by Mr. Webb. Believing, as he does, that collectivism is the way toward which social evolution tends, he is quite consistent in working to hasten such a consummation. But when he endeavors to bolster up his conception with principles culled from evolutional data and Spencerian philosophy, the resulting inconsistency becomes grotesque.

We have seen how the common weal is set up to be the paramount end of individual action, and how it is required of each to subordinate his interests and his conduct to society. Now, this line of argument is possible only by ignoring the vital distinction between the social and individual organism. As Spencer says: Society exists for the benefit of its members, not its members for the benefit of society. It has ever to be remembered that, great as may be the efforts made for the prosperity of the body politic, yet the claims of the body politic are nothing in themselves, and become something only in so far as they embody the claims of its component individuals. (Sociology, vol. I, third ed., p. 450).

Another distinction, equally important, is lost sight of by the Fabian philosophers. I refer to the difference between the needs of a military form of social organization and the industrial type. The former represents a temporary, imperfect, and undesirable stage of social evolution, the latter a permanent, necessary, and wholly desirable condition. The one necessitates a highly centralized, regulating system and great subordination of the individual members, and the degree to which this is carried is the measure of its perfection. Judged by temporary requirements, it becomes the highest type. But the other, the industrial form of organization, which is the ideal type, requires quite the opposite conditions. The industrial regulating system evolves as a separate and independent function from the central or political authority. This kind of society is to be judged by the degree of voluntary interdependence and the freedom from all authority and enforced regulation which its members, both individually and collectively, attain. And, to again quote Spencer’s words, relatively to their ultimate requirements societies become high in proportion to the evolution of their industrial systems, and not in proportion to the evolution of their centralized regulating systems fitting them for carrying on war. (P. 587, ibid.)

So that, looking at the social organism from whatever point we choose, we are driven to reject the theory of development which Mr. Webb and all other Nationalizers attempt to weave around social evolution. It were much better for these good folk to give up all attempts to establish in the name of evolution the fallacies for which they claim scientific truth.

Wm. Bailie.

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