Economy as Viewed by an Anarchist


The classic example of serfdom and its petrifying effect is Europe during the Middle Ages. Other countries, equally backward, either had worse and more primitive institutions—the ryot system of India, the bureaucratic tyranny of China, the military systems of the Mussulmans,—or else they were not so fortunately situated as to have outgrown the nomadic condition. Serfdom was the weight which stayed the advance of Europe during many centuries. The new masters were the most practically inventive race that ever existed. The compass, the clock, the clepsydra, gunpowder, paper, the pump, spectacles, glass windows, are but a few of the improvements between the downward turn of Rome and the general discontinuance of serfdom. Notwithstanding the success of a gloomy superstition well adapted to the melancholy time, men had good teachers. They could still read the Latin and, in Eastern countries, the Greek classics. There were still libraries which contained these standard works. The Jews and Saracens had already rejuvenated the science of the buried world with a very vigorous Asiatic graft. But not much could be expected while serfdom remained intact; and the successive waves of invasion from beyond the Volga, which continued until the fifteenth century, tended to strengthen in by strengthening the local (feudal) form of government, with which its affinities are strongest. The dreadfully disguised liberator was the Black Death (1348). In the year of this great pestilence wages were low, industry suspended, the whole framework of society broken down. In almost deserted cities the poor feasted on the spoils of the rich who had fled. In the country, landlords, who doubted if the world would see another season, allowed the serfs, for whose reduced number provisions were exuberant, to do about as they would. A very rare thing happened—the world really was living on its accumulated wealth. But next year, when hope and tranquility had returned, the immense demand for labor and its sudden scarcity sent wages quite out of serf possibilities. In a year or two more landlords, frightened at the independence of the tenants, attempted to reinforce their own obsolete prerogatives by the usual method of legislation. They were for a time more successful in England, the chief seat of contention, than I should have expected; seeing that the proletariate resisted attempts to put them on the old footing with a stubbornness they always show in stickling for permanency of an advantage gained. This was also the chief historic period of the Swiss revolution, the period of those the Jacquerie and of Wat Tyler’s rebellion, the beginning of those societies which, under the like names of Joss Fritz and Bundschuh, maintained the prospects of liberty along the Rhine. The result was that everywhere, excepting Switzerland, the nobles were victorious in battle; but everywhere they found that something more than battles would be required to reverse the effects of the Black Death. Relics of serfdom remained, perhaps even to our own time, as weapons to the extortioner, hardships to the producer, and annoyance to pestered legislators. But considered as a system of production and distribution, serfdom died by the great plague of 1348. The next hundred and seventy years witnessed progress as rapid as might have been expected. Gunpowder turned the balance of war from the mailed knights to the citizens who had knowledge to make and money to pay for this tremendous chance. The local tyrants were overthrown. The modern kingdoms were firmly established. There was a great advance in secular feeling and wisdom; a great decline in superstition. Printing gave its aid to the good work. Knowledge became popular, ignorance ridiculous. The power and influence of the Church, long since a strictly conservative institution, was greatly lessened. A Portuguese fleet doubled the Cape of Good Hope. A Spanish vessel returned in safety and triumph after crossing the Atlantic. A flood of current-metal, which since the decline of the Roman Empire had been inconveniently scarce, was poured in from America. Prices rose, exchange was facilitated, business of every sort revived. Science, already a young Titan, but hitherto entangled in the nets of the alchemist and astrologer, began to find practical uses for his powers. New inventions—the pendulum, the telescope, the tourniquet—show the new direction of intellectual power. Then the Reformation came. Throughout half Europe the yoke of a greedy, idle, and mischievously charitable theocracy was shattered. The new proprietors were connected by no ancestral sentiment with the cultivators. There was nothing to check their natural penchant for getting all they could out of their tenants except the tenants’ equally natural indisposition to let them have any more than could be helped. Thus began the bourgeois system of our time; which indicates itself in the inanity of making out that things present differ widely from what they are everywhere else, by reasoning that our’s alone is a free system, under which every one does as he pleases, save only that a few things which no one ever did without resistance and danger, but on which tyrants often ventured, are now equally punished, whoever does them, by impartial law. If, therefore, under this system people suffer, it must be by their own fault. Now, it is certain that, if the premises be correct, the conclusion is made out. He who can be a Socialist, praying the Blessed Government to make men happy and equal, just after proving out of his Ricardo that they are unequal and the majority unhappy by a natural law whose operation is contingent upon characteristic misconduct of this majority, must, at any rate, have much greater faith in the divine attributes of the B. G. than I have. But the premises evidently are not correct. The bourgeois system may be freer than the primitive communal,[24] the despotic, the slave system, the feudal and serf systems, or, in short, any which preceded it. That would be quite harmonious with its being, as we all admit it is, the system under which the world has become the richest, the distribution of wealth the most equitable, the standard of comfort highest, the diffusion of knowledge most general, the march of improvement most rapid. And yet that is not really saying much, as will appear if we reflect how slow improvement is; what ridicule and persecution those who effect it still commonly have to go through; what depths of ignorance and superstition lie close to the very highest stratum over which knowledge has spread a filthy net; how destitute of aspiration are still the bulk of the common people; what scenes of misery may still be witnessed within pistol shot of palatial hotels and colleges; how poor we all still feel ourselves; how generally we are struggling to keep our heads above water so hard that if by chance we get fairly upon terra firma we find it impossible to discard old habits, and continue struggling with wave and tempest, wind and rock, for money which is no longer of any service to us! This unsatisfactory state of things we are in now way justified in laying upon the faults of individuals if it have, perchance, a sufficient explanation in the faults of institutions inherited from the barbarous past; and, in particular, it is odious mockery to hold up for specimens of these faults in individuals the leaving undone of what institutions have made impossible. Now, it is very certain (1) that we still have institutions (2) which are the relics of the barbarous past, (3) that some of these are inconsistent with personal liberty, (4) and with advance in knowledge, wealth, or social evolution beyond a certain point, (5) but that they are powerfully buttressed by vested interests, so that (6) they alone are sufficient to explain any existing backwardness in the world’s condition.

22. The bedrock which supports the entire fabric is the subjection of women. The orthodox economists themselves being witnesses, increase of population beyond the means of living, by the older methods, at the old standard, is the force which has constantly impelled nations to fight, conquerors to enslave, discoverers to invent. It is this which has divided, and still does divide, mankind into the classes of rich and poor. A salient point in the same doctrine, moreover, is that prudence about adding to population—care not to do so without making it sure previously that the new mouths will receive the old amount of meat—has been increased by experience, and is a chief cause of improvement. This prudence, however, is much more to be expected from the female sex than the male. The female sex is much the less amorous, as Darwin has shown by a comparison extending throughout the entire animal kingdom. It is on the female sex that fall by far the larger part of the pains, anxieties, difficulties, and responsibilities of propagation; while the pleasures belong chiefly to the male. This difference also increases with civilization. Man in quite advanced states puts little more restraint upon his passions than an animal; but woman, whose foremothers, even back to the ascidian, made the male submit in some measure to their selection, shows far more foresight here and now than exists even among barbarians representing pretty well her human ancestors. That slang about women’s desire to catch husbands, which not long since was common, in no way contradicts this. It was rich husbands only that they wanted, even according to their libelers.

(To be Concluded)

[24] Among all the extravagant errors which have been stated with serene confidence as adamantine foundations for social science, none are more preposterous than that men were once solitary savages enjoying absolute personal freedom. They never appear as anything else than gregarious, and the customs of their most primitive hordes, in which what we usually understand by a government never was organized, are the most exacting, minute and unreasoning tyrannies to be found anywhere.

The philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.


We are anxious to bind volumes of Mother Earth, but find ourselves short in the following copies: May 1906, March, May and December 1907, Jan. 1908, June and Dec. 1909, and Jan., Feb., March, Apr., May, Aug. and Sept. 1910.

Friends willing to let us have these copies will greatly assist us. We are, of course, ready to pay for the missing numbers.

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Ben L. Reitman