Problems of Anarchism


8.—How Collectivist Ideas Survive

In explanation of the belief in government agency as the proper method for getting rid of existing social and economic maladjustments I wish to offer a few suggestions. While it is not true that society is more hopelessly diseased or economic conditions more unjust now than in former times, it is well to observe that much greater attention is directed to social problems and more efforts made to understand them than ever before. The propertyless class, the wage-workers, who bear the greatest burden, are realizing the extent of the weight that keeps them down and growing more discontented and ready to grasp at any means which seems to promise an improvement of their lot. At least an influential part of organized labor pins its faith to governmental extension in the control of industry and property, and nearly all the working classes favor some amount of authoritative regulation—in their own interests, of course—of industrial conditions. Add to this that they hold the semblance of political power through manhood suffrage, and that statesmen and politicians profess, before election most unreservedly, to do the bidding of the majority and enact such laws as Demos shall demand. And as a result we find the doctrinaire collectivist, the opportunist reformer who wants to turn over the whole machinery of civilization to the all-wise and all-just majority and its still wiser and juster representatives and official servants, which will banish forever want and injustice and straightway usher in a new era. Of this type the more wily discard the notion of performing the feat by a sudden uprising or popular barricade revolution, and insist that the process must be gradual, a bit today, another bit tomorrow; believing that existing institutions can be socialized by popular vote, they go in for municipalization of gas and electric works, railroad and land nationalization, and kindred schemes; a policy that is finally to put an end to capitalism and wage slavery. The position is something after this fashion. A man comparatively weak, who has been incessantly clubbed by a superior, at length finds himself in possession of the stick and immediately starts to belabor his adversary, forgetting that the removal of his original weakness should make the weapon lose its terrors for him.

The working classes, becoming more alive to their inferior status and dimly realizing that authority is the weapon which has held them down, would now seize it to work their sweet will by short-hour laws, property confiscation, and government control, but fail utterly to comprehend that the weakness which brings about their oppression is the point which should first be reformed.

If the laboring classes, instead of extending the scope and power of government, which still retains its primal character, though nominally controlled by the majority of the people, would curtail its authority, take away its ability to privilege and protect the propertied class at the expense of the rest, and clear the way for free initiative and industrial effort, which would at once diminish their economic weakness, they would thus take a step on the road to social independence, and not merely be changing places with those they deem their oppressors.

All schemes of communal property and municipal or State Socialism rest their claim to support on the ground that they will be directly and primarily beneficial to the wage workers. Thus these schemes imply that this class labors under peculiar disabilities and grievances from which other classes of society are free. If this be the fact, and the injustice consist—as it must under the circumstances—of economic oppression, then its precise nature should first be ascertained. The law of equal liberty, according to our demonstration, entitles each individual to the full benefit of his energies, the product of his activities exercised without hindering others to enjoy the like. Now the working classes as a whole either do or do not under existing regulations benefit to the full extent of their industrial efforts. If they do receive their full return, it would be manifestly unjust to alter things so that they would obtain more than this, for others would get less than the equivalent of their activities. And if, on the other hand, the wage workers do not reap the rewards due to their own acts and services, justice is not fulfilled, and the first duty of the reformer should be to learn the causes in order to establish conditions whereby it will be possible for each and all to receive the whole benefits of their individual exertions. When, as before observed, the existing injustice is economic, the reform, to be effective, must be of like character. But none of the schemes of collective Socialism and common property meet the question in this manner. They aim at doing something, anything that will on the fact of it compensate the propertyless wealth producers for the injustice from which they suffer. It may be free education, cheap transportation, compulsory short hours, public libraries, municipal profit-saving industries, government organization of labor, or nationalization of land effected by such means as taxes on ground rents, incomes, capitalist profits, and inheritance, or through the suppression of competition, individual contract, and private property; the spirit in each case is coercive philanthropy, and the effect only palliative. None of these reforms offers a permanent and scientific solution of the economic problem underlying the whole subject. The belief in them, however, seems to me perfectly intelligible, and arises naturally out of historic conditions, just as theological beliefs and superstitions have done, but like these is illogical and untenable in the face of the more comprehensive and exact knowledge now at our command.

When the nature of justice is so obscured that the need for individual liberty receives imperfect recognition, and the prime condition of progressive life is not fulfilled, that each should receive the consequences of his own conduct, enjoy the fruits of his life-sustaining activities undiminished by external or coercive power; and when the origin, claims, and sphere of government are as little understood as the nature of God, soul, and immorality, then there is nothing surprising about the widely extended craze for authoritative collectivism and common property. Its connection with the militant spirit of political authority becomes more evident the closer we investigate. For example, the government control of railways in Germany, France, Russia, and other European countries arises from a purely military motive, and likewise with other industrial functions. England’s first move to control her merchant marine by contracts with ocean steamships has the same end in view, as we also see in recent Congressional action with regard to ocean greyhounds. Bismarck and the present Kaiser have made collectivism an adjunct of militancy, and in the attempt to retain authority continue to administer to the German people increasing doses of Socialistic chloroform. It is now recognized that the Tory element in England and the Republicans in this country, both representing the jingo spirit, are the parties most willing to coquet with the like schemes. The effects of this marriage of the militant spirit with paternalism are well displayed in the policy of the English Post-office toward its employés who formed a union to improve their position. The latter were speedily taught that they had about as much right to complain and not quite so much liberty as a soldier in the army. Similarly have the municipal authorities dealt with their workmen engaged in Socialistic industries. The public funds have been used unstintingly to crush all manifestations of independence, termed insubordination; and notwithstanding the fact that Socialists generally protest against a comparison of their ideal Socialism with the bastard forms of it just cited, though hailing every extension as a triumph of their principles, I must confess that the prick of a pin is often sufficient to display the identity. Witness the recent declaration of the veteran leader of the German Social Democracy, Herr August Bebel, in the Reichstag, in reply to Herr Richter: If the citizens of our Socialist State did not obey, we would refuse them bread (vide New York papers, Feb. 12).

My own experience with less famous advocates of collectivism furnishes still more convincing proof of its despotic and authoritarian spirit. Some, if not most, men are, however, better than their principles, and I have no desire to impute to such as George Bernard Shaw personally the tendencies which the party he is identified with so unmistakably betrays.

Chief amongst the reasons, then, for the seeming progress of national collectivism is the surviving military character of government. The growth of local or municipal collectivism seems to be due principally to the unpopularity of private monopolies, which, performing services of a semi-public nature, have succeeded in annulling competition by securing privileges from those in authority and retaining them by legal force, and so, by overcharging for their services, robbing the people, who under existing laws have no redress. Thus the evil erroneously charged to private enterprise, but arising out of legal privilege, is sought to be removed by the creation of public monopoly,—a panacea fostered by the influential element, which sees an opening for jobs, emoluments, and power in every extension of the sphere of government. That such a movement will ultimately develop into common property, as Socialists appear to believe, is not a conclusion warranted by the facts. Moreover, social tendencies are not worked out by conscious and intentional effort, but are the result of causes seldom perceived or understood during the evolutional process. And because certain theorists have assumed compulsory Socialism to be the only means of salvation, which, were it true, would be no proof that society will next evolve that way, must we therefore regard the death of individual property as imminent, notwithstanding abundant evidence to the contrary?

In accordance with what is known of social growth, we believe that the militant function of government in industrial societies is sure to decline and finally disappear; and we also believe, for like reasons, that industrial monopoly is not a permanent phase, but will be undermined by the growth of scientific discoveries and mechanical inventions, which, as competition becomes more general, will offer an ever-increasing choice of means and services to meet all the wants and purposes of man; while the increasing intelligence and independence of the people manifested through voluntary association, and, where it proves itself the more competent, industrial coöperation, will eliminate every excuse for coercive political collectivism. This view is strengthened by remembering that to private effort and individual energy in fact of authoritative discouragement and opposition are due to the wonderful achievements of modern science. For one purpose only do European governments spend large sums every year in scientific experiment and discovery. In the art of human destruction, termed murder when practised on a small scale, we see inventive genius taxed to its utmost capacity under pressure of government patronage and reward. Yet here in its own unchallenged sphere we learn the same lesson which the analysis of government activity in other directions has made plain. State-built ships blow up, guns explode, and inefficiency marks every production of the government workshops, though the cost is much above the outside market rate for more reliable work. And it is found that private enterprise in these murderous industries, both in fertility of invention and mechanical skill, can successfully compete with government works. The only reason why the latter continue to exist lies in the unavoidable connection of corruption, jobbery, soft berths, and control or expenditure with political power. A history of the British government dockyards and arms factories and of attempts at reform would bring all this home to the reader with conclusive force. He must be left, however, to seek out the facts for himself.

The purpose of this chapter has been to show that, although we cannot acquiesce in any form of collectivism or believe it a probable outcome of social evolution, yet we should recognize the sources of the movement to lie deeper than mere ephemeral agitation, while at the same time we must disentangle the conception of private property as a deduction from individual freedom from the actual property conditions that now exist.

Wm. Bailie.

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