Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What is Socialism? by James Boyle 1912

What is Socialism? by James Boyle 1912

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"Socialism is so vague and contradictory that it cannot stand argument. Its very vagueness commends it to men who will not or cannot take the trouble to think, but in the long run the men who do think will win, if the discussion is only kept up."—Henry George, in letter to the Editor of the Financial Reform Almanac, Liverpool, Eng.

"Class war is murder; class war is fratricide; class war is suicide."—Charles Bradlaugh (the English Radical), in his debate with H. M. Hyndman, the leader of British Marxian Socialism.

"I want to tell you Socialists that . . . economically, you are unsound; socially, you are wrong; industrially, you are an impossibility."—Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor, at the annual meeting, at Boston, 1903.

Origin of the word "Socialism."

There has been much discussion as to the origin of the word "Socialism;" but there is now, however, a general agreement that it was first used in the Poor Man's Guardian (England) in 1833, and that it became for the first time current in England in 1835, during the Robert Owen agitation. Shortly afterwards, a French critic of the theory, Reybaud, introduced the word on the Continent. Subsequently, another French economist, Pierre Leroux, author of a work expounding a system called "Humanitarianism," claimed to have invented the term in contradistinction to "Individualism;" and Leroux defined Socialism as a "political organization in which the individual is sacrificed to society." It is not unlikely that the term originated about the same time in more than one place.


Experts in economic terminology indulge in hairs-plitting differences in defining Socialism. Prof. Robert Flint, of the University of Edinburgh—probably the keenest of all scholarly British critics—takes the position that there is not any satisfactory definition of Socialism, for the reason that there are so many varieties and so many different points of view from which it is looked at. It would be unreasonable, he says, to ask for any definition which would be satisfactory to both Socialists and their opponents. Prof. Flint's own definition is: "Any theory of social organization which sacrifices the legitimate liberties of individuals to the will or interests of the community." E. Belfort Bax, the literary leader of British Marxism, comes to much the same conclusion that Prof. Flint does, he declaring in an article in The Open Review (London) July, 1909, that "A world-historic movement like Socialism is too big a thing to be fitted into the four corners of a one-sentence formula."

When Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the father of "Philosophic Anarchism," was before a magistrate on examination after the French Revolution of 1848, he was asked "What is Socialism?" His answer was, "Every aspiration toward the amelioration of society." "In that case," remarked the magistrate, "we are all Socialists." "That is precisely what I think," responded Proudhon. This reminds one of the declaration once made by the English statesman, Sir William Harcourt: "We are all Socialists now!"

Not only popularly, but also among students and economists, the term "Socialism" is now meant to apply specifically to Modern, Scientific, Marxian Socialism, including its varying interpretations. There are several kinds not now included, particularly Utopian Socialism, such as is presented in the form of romances by Plato in his Republic, More in his Utopia, and Bellamy in Looking Backward; and in such actual Utopian communistic experiments as those made by the Owenites, the Harmonites, the Shakers, the Oneida Community, the Zoarites, etc.,—all of which must be considered as failures not only from the Socialist view, but from the standpoint of plain, practical, every-day life. Neither does the term, as now used by informed people, apply to Bismarck's scheme of paternal "State Socialism," which, as a system, is repudiated as such, by the organized Socialists of Germany, although they practically acquiesce in it as "a means to an end"—that end being Collectivism. And yet, State Socialism is not only accepted by English Socialists, but most of their activities are in the direction of forcing the Government of the day, or the Councils of Municipalities, to grant instalments of State or Municipal Socialism, as the case may be. In 1896 the English Fabian Society issued a statement for the information of their Continental comrades, in which it was explained that the Socialism they advocated was "State Socialism exclusively." This opens up a wide field of controversy among Socialists; but briefly, the explanation of this apparent difference is that in a democratic country like England the proletarian objections to State Socialism which exist in a bureaucratic country like Germany, are not considered to be applicable. As a matter of fact, moreover, the practical Opportunism of British Socialism (sometimes called "Constructive Socialism") is now becoming the dominant school throughout the world.

It is said that Karl Marx, the "father" of so-called "Scientific" Socialism, never gave a concrete definition of his theory, except the following (from his preface to the second edition of his great elaboration Capital) be considered as one: "With me the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought."

There has never been framed any better brief definition of Modern Socialism in its economic aspect than that by one of its first expounders as well as critics— Dr. A. Shaffle, the eminent Austrian economist, in The Quintessence of Socialism:—"The Alpha and Omega of Socialism is the transformation of private and competing capitals into a united collective capital." Paul Lafargue, who was a son-in-law of Marx, and one of the founders of Marxian Socialism in France, defines the theory as "a fatal economic evolution which will establish collective ownership in the hands of organizations of workers, in place of the individual ownership of capital."

John Stuart Mill, in the Fortnightly Review, April, 1879, says:

What is characteristic of Socialism is the joint ownership by all members of the community of the instruments and means of production, which carries with it the consequence that the division of all the produce among the body of the owners must be a public act performed according to rules laid down by the community.

The Rev. Dr. Bliss (who is editor of the Encyclopedia of Social Reform, and is himself a Christian Socialist), after quoting a number of definitions, sums them up thus:—"Socialism may be said to be the collective ownership of the means of production by the community democratically organized and their operation co-operatively for the equitable good of all."

The Socialist organizations of America, Germany, and Great Britain define their basic principles in terms which, while differing in expression, are practically to the same effect. It should be added that land and such natural products as coal, ore, etc., are included among "means of production," by Socialists of all countries.

The definitions given above, it will be observed, refer only to the industrial or economic side of Socialism. The latter-day Constructive Socialists claim that their theory has only an economic side; but nearly all the great shining lights who profess orthodoxy insist that Socialism means far more than a mere change of capital from private to public ownership. They argue that it is a condition, not a creed, and that that condition will affect all the relations of life: social, family, religious, artistic, etc., as well as industrial and political. It is here that the moral argument for and against Socialism forces itself to the front; and it is this fact, involving as it does such tremendously different conceptions of the system, which makes it practically impossible to frame any formula or brief definition of Socialism which will be adequately comprehensive as well as discriminatingly exact. Probably there is a consensus of judgment that the greatest living Socialist is Ferd August Bebel, one of the founders of the German Social Democratic Party, and the leader of that party in the Reichstag. He gives this definition in Die Frau und der Sozialismus:—"Socialism is Science applied with clear consciousness and full knowledge to every sphere of human activity."

There is another pronouncement of Bebel's which is one of the most-often quoted of any ever made by an acknowledged leader of International Socialism:—"We aim in the domain of Politics at Republicanism; in the domain of Economics at Socialism, in the domain of what is to-day called Religion at Atheism."

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