Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Antiquity of Socialism by By Gustave Le Bon 1899

The Antiquity of Socialism by By Gustave Le Bon 1899

SOCIALISM has not made its first appearance in the world to-day. To use an expression dear to ancient historians, we may say that its origins are lost in the night of time; for its prime cause is the inequality of conditions, and this inequality was the law of the ancient world, as it is that of the modern. Unless some all-powerful deity takes it upon himself to re-fashion the nature of man, this inequality is undoubtedly destined to subsist until the final sterilisation of our planet. It would seem that the struggle between rich and poor must be eternal. 

Without harking back to primitive Communism, a form of inferior development from which all societies have sprung, we may say that antiquity has experimented with all the forms of Socialism that are proposed to us to-day. Greece, notably, put them all into practice, and ended by dying of her dangerous experiments. The Collectivist doctrines were exposed long ago in the Republic of Plato. Aristotle contests them, and as M. Guirand remarks, reviewing their writings in his book on Landed Property among the Greeks: "All the contemporary doctrines are represented here, from Christian Socialism to the most advanced Collectivism." 

These doctrines were many times put into practice. All the political revolutions in Greece were at the same time social revolutions, or revolutions with the object of changing the inequalities of conditions by despoiling the rich and oppressing the aristocracy. They often succeeded, but their triumph was always ephemeral. The final result was the Hellenic decadence, and the loss of national independence. The Socialists of those days agreed no better than the Socialists of these, or, at least, agreed only to destroy: until Rome put an end to their perpetual dissensions by reducing Greece to servitude. 

The Romans themselves did not escape from the attempts of the Socialists. They suffered the experimental agrarian Socialism of the Gracchi, which limited the territorial property of each citizen, distributed the surplus among the poor, and obliged the State to nourish necessitous citizens. Thence resulted the struggles which gave rise to Marius, Sylla, the civil wars, and finally to the ruin of the Republic and the domination of the Emperors.

The Jews also were familiar with the demands of the Socialists. The imprecations of their prophets, the true anarchists of their times, were above all imprecations against riches. Jesus, the most illustrious of them, asserted the right of the poor before everything. His maledictions and menaces are addressed only to the rich; the Kingdom of God is reserved for the poor alone. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." 

During the first two or three centuries of our era the Christian religion was the Socialism of the poor, the disinherited, and the discontented; and, like modern Socialism, it was in perpetual conflict with the established institutions. Nevertheless, Christian Socialism ended by triumphing; it was the first time that the Socialistic ideas obtained a lasting success. 

But although it possessed one immense advantage—-that of promising happiness only for a future life, and therefore of certainty that it could never see its promises disproved—-Christian Socialism could maintain itself only by renouncing its principles after victory. It was obliged to lean on the rich and powerful, and so to become the defender of the fortune and property it had formerly cursed. Like all triumphant revolutionaries, it became conservative in its turn, and the social ideal of Catholic Rome was not very far removed from that of Imperial Rome. Once more had the poor to content themselves with resignation, labour, and obedience; with a prospect of heaven if they were quiet, and a threat of hell and the devil if they harassed their masters. What a marvellous story is this of this two thousand years' dream! When our descendants, freed from the heritages that oppress our thoughts, are able to consider it from a purely philosophical point of view, they will never tire of admiring the formidable might of this gigantic Minerva by which our civilisations are still propped up. How thin do the most brilliant systems of philosophy show before the genesis and growth of this belief, so puerile from a rational point of view, and yet so powerful! Its enduring empire shows us well to what extent it is the unreal that governs the world, and not the real. The founders of religion have created nothing but hopes; yet they are their works that have lasted the longest. What Socialist outlook can ever equal the paradises of Jesus and Mahomet? How miserable in comparison are the perspectives of earthly happiness that the apostle of Socialism promises us to-day!

They seem very ancient, all these historical events which take us back to the Greeks, the Romans, and the Jews; but in reality they are always young, for always they betray the laws of human nature,—-that human nature that as yet the course of ages has not changed. Humanity has aged much since then, but she always pursues the same dreams and suffers the same experiences without learning anything from them. Let any one read the declarations, full of hope and enthusiasm, issued by our Socialists of fifty years ago, at the moment of the revolution of 1848, of which they were the most valiant partisans. The new age was born, and, thanks to them, the face of the world was about to be changed. Thanks to them, their country sank into a despotism; and, a few years later, into a formidable war and invasion. Scarcely half a century has passed since this phase of Socialism, and already forgetful of this latest lesson we are preparing ourselves to repeat the same round.

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