Socialism - A Summary and Interpretation of Socialist Principles
by John Spargo
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Cabet chose exile, and took up his residence in England, where he fell under the influence of Owen's agitation and became a convert to his Socialistic views. During this time of exile, too, he became acquainted with the "Utopia" of Sir Thomas More and was fascinated by it. The idea of writing a similar work of fiction to propagate his Socialist belief impressed itself upon his mind, and he wrote "a philosophical and social romance," entitled "Voyage to Icaria," which was published soon after his return to Paris, in 1839. In this novel Cabet follows closely the method of More, and describes "Icaria" as "a Promised Land, an Eden, an Elysium, a new terrestrial Paradise." The plot of the book is simple in the extreme, and its literary merit is not very great. The writer represents that he met, in London, a nobleman, Lord William Carisdall, who, having by chance heard of Icaria and the wonderful and strange customs and form of government of its inhabitants, visited the country. Lord William kept a diary in which he described all that he saw in this wonderland. This record, we are told, the traveler had permitted to be published through the medium of his friend, and under his editorial supervision. The first part of the book contains an attractive account of the cooeperative system of the Icarians, their communistic government, equality of the sexes, and high standard of morality. The second part is devoted to an account of the history of Icaria, prior to and succeeding the revolution of 1782, when the great national hero, Icar, established Communism.

The book created a tremendous furore in France. It appealed strongly to the discontented masses, and it is said that by 1847 Cabet had no less than four hundred thousand adherents among the workers of France. The numerical strength of revolutionary movements is almost invariably greatly exaggerated, however, and it is not likely that the figures cited are exceptional in this regard. It is possible, cum grano salis, to accept the figures only by remembering that a very infinitesimal proportion of these were adherents in the sense of being ready to follow Cabet's leadership, as subsequent events showed. When the clamor rose for a practical test of the theories set forth so alluringly, Cabet visited Robert Owen in England and sought advice as to the best site for such an experiment. Owen recommended Texas, then recently admitted into the union of states and anxious for settlers. Cabet accepted Owen's advice and called for volunteers to form the "advance guard" of settlers, the number responding being pitifully, almost ludicrously, small. Still, the effect of the book was very great, and it served to fire the flagging zeal of those workers for social regeneration whose hearts must otherwise have become deadly sick from long-deferred hopes.

The confluence of these two streams of Communist propaganda represented by Weitling and Cabet constituted the real Communist "movement" of 1840-1847. Its organized expression was the Communist League, a secret organization with its headquarters in London. The League was formed in Paris by German refugees and traveling workmen, and seems to have been an offspring of Mazzini's "Young Europe" agitation of 1834. At different times it bore the names, "League of the Just," "League of the Righteous," and, finally, "Communist League."[44] For many years it remained a mere conspiratory society, exclusively German, and existed mainly for the purpose of fostering the "Young Germany" ideas. Later it became an International Alliance with societies in many parts of Europe.

In 1847 Karl Marx was residing in Brussels. During a prior residence in Paris he had come into close association with the leaders of the League there, and had agreed to form a similar society in Brussels. Engels was in Paris in 1847, and it was probably due to his activities that the Paris League officially invited both him and Marx to join the international organization, promising that a congress should be convened in London at an early date. We may, in view of the after career of Engels as the politician of the movement, surmise so much. Be that how it may, the invitation, with its promise to call a congress in London, was extended and accepted. The reason for the step, the object of the proposed congress, is quite clear. Marx himself has placed it beyond dispute. During his stay in Paris he and Engels had discussed the position of the League with some of its leaders, and he had, later, criticised it in the most merciless manner in some of his pamphlets.[45] Marx desired a revolutionary working class political party with a definite aim and policy. Those leaders of the League who agreed with him in this were the prime movers for the congress, which was held in London, in November, 1847.

At the congress, Marx and Engels presented their views at great length, and outlined the principles and policy which their famous pamphlet later made familiar. Perhaps it was due to the very convincing manner in which they argued that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of that class itself, that there was some opposition to them, on the part of a few delegates, on the ground that they were "Intellectuals" and not members of the proletariat, a criticism which pursued them all through their lives. Their views found general favor, however, as might be expected from such an inchoate mass of men, revolutionaries to the core, and waiting only for effective leadership. A resolution was adopted requesting Marx and Engels to prepare "a complete theoretical and working programme" for the League. This they did. It took the form of the Communist Manifesto, published in the early part of January, 1848.


The authors of the Manifesto were men of great intellectual gifts. Either of them alone must have won fame; together, they won immortality. Their lives, from the date of their first meeting in Paris, in 1844, to the death of Marx, almost forty years later, are inseparably interwoven. The friendship of Damon and Pythias was not more remarkable.

Karl Heinrich Marx was born on the fifth day of May, 1818, at Treves, the oldest town in Germany, dating back to Roman times. His parents were both people of remarkable character. His mother—nee Pressburg—was the descendant of Hungarian Jews who in the sixteenth century had settled in Holland. Many of her ancestors had been rabbis. Marx was passionately devoted to his mother, always speaking of her with reverent admiration. On his father's side, also, Marx boasted of a long line of rabbinical ancestors, and it has been suggested that he owed to this rabbinical ancestry some of his marvelous gift of luminous exposition. The true family name was Mordechia, but that was abandoned by his grandfather, who took the name of Marx, which the grandson was destined to make famous. The father of Karl was a lawyer of some prominence and considerable learning, and a man of great force of character. In 1824, the boy Karl being then six years old, he renounced the Jewish religion and embraced Christianity, all the members of the family being baptized and received into the Church.

There is a familiar legend that this act was the result of compulsion, being taken in response to an official edict.[46] He held at the time the position of notary public at the county court, and it is claimed that the official edict in question required all Jews holding official positions to forego them, and to abandon the practice of law, or to accept the Christian faith. Many writers, including Liebknecht[47] and one of the daughters of Karl Marx,[48] have given this explanation of the renunciation of Judaism by the elder Marx. It seems certain, however, that the act was purely voluntary, and that there was no such edict.[49] It may be that social ambitions had something to do with it, that he hoped to attain, as a Christian, a measure of success not possible to an adherent of the Hebrew faith. Whatever the motive, the act was a voluntary one. A great admirer of the eighteenth-century "materialists," and a disciple of Voltaire, he believed in God, he said, as Newton, Locke, and Leibnitz had done before him. He discussed religious and philosophical questions very freely and frankly with his son, and read Voltaire and Racine with him. As for the mother of Marx, she also believed in God—"not for God's sake, but for my own," she explained when asked about it.

At the earnest behest of his father, Marx studied law at the universities of Bonn, Berlin, and Jena. But "to please himself" he studied history and philosophy, winning great distinction in these branches of learning. He graduated in 1841, as a Doctor of Philosophy, with an essay on the philosophy of Epicurus, and it was his purpose to settle at Bonn as a professor of philosophy. The plan was abandoned, partly because he had already discovered that his bent was toward political activity, and partly because the Prussian government had made scholastic independence impossible, thus destroying the attractiveness of an academic career. Accordingly, Marx accepted the editorship of a democratic paper, the Rhenish Gazette, in which he waged bitter, relentless war upon the government. Time after time the censors interfered, but Marx was too brilliant a polemicist, even thus early in his career, and far too subtle for the censors. Finally, at the request of his managers, who hoped thus to avoid being compelled to suspend the publication, Marx retired from the editorship. This did not serve to save the paper, however, and it was suppressed by the government in March, 1843.

Soon after this Marx went to Paris, with his young bride of a few months, Jenny von Westphalen, the playmate of his childhood. The Von Westphalens were of the nobility, and a brother of Mrs. Marx afterward became a Prussian Minister of State. The elder Von Westphalen was half Scotch, related, on his maternal side, to the Argyles. He was a lineal descendant of the Duke of Argyle who was beheaded in the reign of James II. His daughter tells an amusing story of how Marx, many years later, having to pawn some of his wife's heirlooms, especially some heavy, antique silver spoons which bore the Argyle crest and motto, "Truth is my maxim," narrowly escaped arrest on suspicion of having robbed the Argyles![50] To Paris, then, Marx went, and there met, among others, Heinrich Heine, many of whose poems he suggested, Arnold Ruge, the poet, P. J. Proudhon, and Michael Bakunin, the Anarchist philosopher, and, above all, the man destined to be his very alter ego, Friedrich Engels, with whom he had already had some correspondence.[51]

The attainments of Engels have been somewhat overshadowed by those of his friend. Born at Barmen, in the province of the Rhine, November 28, 1820, he was educated in the gymnasium of that city, and after serving his period of military service, from 1837 to 1841, was sent, in the early part of 1842, to Manchester, England, to look after a cotton-spinning business of which his father was principal owner. Here he seems to have at once begun a thorough investigation of social and industrial conditions, the results of which are contained in a book, "The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844," which remains to this day a classic presentation of the social and industrial life of the period. From the very first, already predisposed, as we know, he sympathized with the views of the Chartists and the Owenite Socialists. He became friendly with the Chartist leaders, notably with Feargus O'Connor, to whose paper, the Northern Star, he became a contributor. He also became friendly with Robert Owen, and wrote for his New Moral World.[52] His linguistic abilities were very great; it is said that he had thoroughly mastered no less than ten languages—a gift which helped him immensely in his literary and political associations with Marx.

When the two men met for the first time, in 1844, they were drawn together by an irresistible impulse. They were kindred spirits. Marx had gone to Paris mainly for the purpose of studying the Socialist movement of the time. During his editorship of the Rhenish Gazette several articles had appeared on the subject, and he had refused to attack the Socialists in any manner. He had gone to Paris with a considerable reputation already established as a leader of radical thought, and at once sought out the Saint-Simonians, under whose influence he was led to declare himself definitely a Socialist. At first this seems difficult to explain, so wide is the chasm which yawns between the "New Christianity" of Saint-Simon and the materialism of Marx. There seems to be no bond of sympathy between the religious mysticism of the French dreamer and the scientific thought of the German economist and philosopher.

Marx has been described as being "rigidly mathematical,"[53] and the picture of the man one gets from his writings is that of a cold, unemotional philosopher, dealing only with facts and caring nothing for idealism. But the real Marx was a very different sort of man. His life was itself a splendid example of noble idealism, and underlying all his materialism there was a great religious spirit, using the word "religious" in its noblest and best sense, quite independent of dogmatic theology. All his life he was a deep student of Dante, the Divine Comedy being his constant companion, so that he knew it almost completely by heart. Some of his attacks upon Christianity are very bitter, and have been much quoted against Socialism, but they are not one whit more bitter than the superb thunderbolts of invective which the ancient Hebrew prophets hurled against an unfaithful Church and priesthood. For the most part, they are attacks upon religious hypocrisy rather than upon Christianity. Marx was, of course, an agnostic, even an atheist, but he was full of sympathy with the underlying ethical principles of all the great religions. Always tolerant of the religious opinions of others, he had nothing but scorn and contempt for the blatant dogmatic atheism of his time, and vigorously opposed committing the Socialist movement to atheism as part of its programme.[54] In short, he was a man of fine spiritual instincts, splendidly religious in his irreligion.

This spiritual side of Marx must be considered if we would understand the man. It is not necessary, however, to ascribe the influence of Saint-Simonian thought upon him to a predisposing spiritual temperament. Marx, with his usual penetration, saw in Saint-Simonism the hidden germ of a great truth, the embryo of a profound social theory. Saint-Simon, as we have seen, had vaguely indicated the two ideas which were afterward to be cardinal doctrines of the Marx-Engels Manifesto—the antagonism of classes, and the economic foundation of political institutions. Not only so, but Saint-Simon's grasp of political questions, instanced by his advocacy, in 1815, of a triple alliance between England, France, and Germany,[55] appealed to Marx, and impressed him alike by its fine perspicacity and its splendid courage. Engels, in whom, as stated, the working-class spirit of Chartism and the ideals of Owenism were blended, found in Marx a twin spirit. They were, indeed,—

"Two souls with but a single thought, Two hearts that beat as one."


The Communist Manifesto is the first declaration of an International Workingmen's Party. Its fine peroration is a call to the workers to transcend the petty divisions of nationalism and sectarianism: "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!" These concluding phrases of the Manifesto have become the shibboleths of millions. They are repeated with fervor by the disinherited workers of all the lands. Even in China, lately so rudely awakened from the slumbering peace of the centuries, they are voiced by an ever increasing army of voices. No sentences ever coined in the mint of human speech have held such magic power over such large numbers of men and women of so many diverse races and creeds. As a literary production, the Manifesto bears the unmistakable stamp of genius.

But it is not as literature that we are to consider the historic document. Its importance for us lies, not in its form, but in its fundamental principle. And the fundamental principle, the essence or soul of the declaration, is contained in this pregnant summary by Engels:—

"In every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch, that consequently the whole history of mankind (since primitive tribal society holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes."[56]

Thus Engels summarizes the philosophy—as apart from the proposals of immediate measures to constitute the political programme of the party—of the Manifesto; the basis upon which the whole superstructure of modern, scientific Socialist theory rests. This is the materialistic, or economic, conception of history which distinguishes scientific Socialism from all the Utopian Socialisms which preceded it. Socialism is henceforth a theory of social evolution, not a scheme of world-building; a spirit, not a thing. Thus, twelve years before the appearance of "The Origin of Species," nearly twenty years after the death of Lamarck, the authors of the Communist Manifesto formulated a great theory of social evolution as the basis of the mightiest proletarian movement in history. Socialism had become a science instead of a dream.


Naturally, in view of its historic role, the joint authorship of the Manifesto has been much discussed. What was the respective share of each of its creators? What did Marx contribute, and what Engels? It may be, as Liebknecht says, an idle question, but it is a perfectly natural one. The pamphlet itself does not assist us. There are no internal signs pointing now to the hand of the one, now to the hand of the other. We may hazard a guess that most of the programme of ameliorative measures was the work of Engels, and perhaps the final section. It was the work of Engels throughout his life to deal with present social and political problems in the light of the fundamental theories to the systematization and elucidation of which Marx was devoted.

Beyond this mere conjecture, we have the word of Engels with regard to the basal principle which he has summarized in the passage already quoted. "The Manifesto being our joint production," he says, "I consider myself bound to state that the fundamental proposition which forms its nucleus belongs to Marx.... This proposition, which, in my opinion, is destined to do for history what Darwin's theory has done for biology, we, both of us, had been gradually approaching for some years before 1845. How far I had progressed toward it is best shown by my 'Condition of the Working Class in England.'[57] But when I again met Marx at Brussels, in spring, 1845, he had it ready worked out, and put it before me in terms almost as clear as those in which I have stated it here."[58]

Engels has lifted the veil thus far, but the rest is hidden. Perhaps it is well that it should be; well that no man should be able to say which passages came from the mind of Marx and which from the mind of Engels. In life they were inseparable, and so they must be in the Valhalla of history. The greatest political pamphlet of all time must forever bear, with equal honor, the names of both. Their noble friendship unites them even beyond the tomb.

"Twin Titans! Whom defeat ne'er bowed, Scarce breathing from the fray, Again they sound the war cry loud, Again is riven Labor's shroud, And life breathed in the clay. Their work? Look round—see Freedom proud And confident to-day."[59]


[42] Cf. Social Democracy Red Book, edited by Frederic Heath (1900), page 79.

[43] History of Socialism in the United States, by Morris Hillquit, pages 161-162.

[44] E. Belfort Bax, article on Friederich Engels, in Justice (London), No. 606, Vol. XII, August 24, 1895.

[45] Disclosures about the Communists' Process, Herr Vogt, etc.

[46] Cf. G. Adler, Die Grundlagen der Karl Marx'schen Kritik der bestehenden Volkswirthschaft (1887), page 226.

[47] Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs, by Wilhelm Liebknecht, page 14.

[48] Idem, page 164.

[49] Cf. F. Mehring's Aus dem literarischen Nachlass von Karl Marx, Friederich Engels, und Ferdinand Lassalle, 1902; the Neue Beitrage zur Biographie von Karl Marx und Friederich Engels, in Die Neue Zeit, 1907, and Mehring's Geschichte der deutschen Sozialdemokratie, 1903.

[50] Memoirs of Marx, by Wilhelm Liebknecht, page 164.

[51] Karl Kautsky, article on F. Engels, Austrian Labor Almanac, 1887.

[52] E. Belfort Bax, article on Friederich Engels, in Justice (London), No. 606, Vol. XII, August 24, 1895.

[53] Cf. Reminiscences of Karl Marx, by W. Harrison Riley, in The Comrade, Vol. III, No. 1, pages 5-6.

[54] Marx opposed the "Alliance de la Democratic Socialiste," formed by Bakunin, with its headquarters at Geneva, almost as vigorously for its atheistic plank as for its denial of political methods. The first plank in the programme of the "Alliance" was as follows:—

"The Alliance declares itself Atheist; it demands the abolition of all worship, the substitution of science for faith, and of human justice for Divine justice; the abolition of marriage, so far as it is a political, religious, juridical, or civil institution."

This programme is frequently quoted against the Socialist propaganda,—as, for example, by George Brooks, in God's England or the Devil's?—in spite of the fact that the "Alliance" was an Anarchist organization, bitterly opposed by Marx, and, in turn, bitterly opposing him.

In this connection, it may be well to call attention to an alleged "quotation from Marx" which is frequently used by the opponents of Socialism. It appears in the work of Brooks, quoted above, and in Professor Peabody's Jesus Christ and the Social Question (1907), page 16. Used in a public discussion by a New York labor union official, in April, 1908, it was widely discussed by the press, and, according to that same press, drew from the President of the United States enthusiastic praise of the labor-union official in question. The passage reads: "The idea of God must be destroyed. It is the keystone of a perverted civilization. The true root of liberty, of equality, of culture, is Atheism. Nothing must restrain the spontaneity of the human mind." Had the opponents of Socialism been familiar with the teachings of Marx, they would have known that he could not have said anything like this, that it is absolutely at variance with all his teaching. The man who formulated the materialist conception of history could not by any possibility utter such balderdash. The fact is, the quotation is not from Karl Marx at all, but from a very different writer, an Anarchist, Wilhelm Marr, who was a most bitter opponent of Socialism. As given, the quotation is a free translation of a passage contained in Marr's Das junge Deutschland in der Schweiz, pages 131-134. Marr's programme, as given in the Report of the Royal Commission on Labor (Vol. V, Germany), was the abolition of Church, State, property, and marriage, with the one positive tenet of "a bloody and fearful revenge upon the rich and powerful."

[55] See F. Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, page 16 (London edition, 1892).

[56] F. Engels, Introduction to the Communist Manifesto (English translation, 1888). The italics are mine. J. S.

[57] F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. See, for instance, pages 79, 80, 82, etc.

[58] Introduction to the Communist Manifesto (English edition, 1888).

[59] From Friederich Engels, a poem by "J. L." (John Leslie), in Justice (London), August 17, 1895.




Socialism, then, in the modern, scientific sense, is a theory of social evolution. Its hopes for the future rest, not upon the genius of some Utopia-builder, but upon the inherent forces of historical development. The Socialist state will never be realized except as the result of economic necessity, the culmination of successive epochs of industrial evolution. Thus the existing social system appears to the Socialist of to-day, not as it appeared to the Utopians and as it still must appear to mere ideologist reformers, as a triumph of ignorance or wickedness, the reign of false ideas, but as the result of an age-long evolutionary process, determined, not wholly indeed, but mainly, by certain methods of producing the necessities of life in the first place, and secondly, of effecting their exchange.

Not, let it be understood, that Socialism has become a mere mechanical theory of economic fatalism. The historical development, the social evolution, upon the laws of which the theories of Socialism are based, is a human process, involving all the complex feelings, emotions, aspirations, hopes, and fears common to man. To ignore this fundamental fact, as they must who interpret the Marx-Engels theory of history as a doctrine of economic fatalism, is to miss the profoundest significance of the theory. While it is true that the scientific spirit destroys the idea of romantic, magic transformations of the social system and the belief that the world may be re-created at will, rebuilt upon the plans of some Utopian architect, it still, as we shall see, leaves room for the human factor. Otherwise, indeed, it would only be a new kind of Utopianism. They who accept the theory that the production of the material necessities of life is the main impelling force, the geist, of human evolution, may rightly protest against social injustice and wrong just as vehemently as any of the ideologists, and aspire just as fervently toward a nobler and better state. The Materialistic Conception of History does not involve the fatalist resignation summed up in the phrase, "Whatever is, is natural, and, therefore, right." It does not involve belief in man's helplessness to change conditions.


The idea of social evolution is admirably expressed in the fine phrase of Leibnitz, "The present is the child of the past, but it is the parent of the future."[60] The great seventeenth-century philosopher was not the first to postulate and apply to society that doctrine of flux, of continuity and unity, which we call evolution. In all ages of which record has been preserved to us, it has been sporadically, and more or less vaguely, expressed. Even savages seem to have dimly perceived it. The saying of the Bechuana chief, recorded by the missionary, Casalis, was probably, judging by its epigrammatic character, a proverb of his people. "One event is always the son of another," he said—a saying strikingly like that of Leibnitz.

Since the work of Lyell, Darwin, Wallace, Spencer, Huxley, Youmans, and their numerous followers—a brilliant school embracing the foremost historians and sociologists of Europe and America—the idea of evolution as a universal law has made rapid and certain progress. Everything changes; nothing is immutable or eternal. Whatever is, whether in geology, astronomy, biology, or sociology, is the result of numberless, inevitable, related changes. Only the law of change is changeless. The present is a phase only of a great transition process from what was, through what is, to what will be.

The Marx-Engels theory is an exploration of the laws governing this process of evolution in the domain of human relations: an attempt to provide a key to the hitherto mysterious succession of changes in the political, juridical, and social relations and institutions of mankind. Whence, for instance, arose the institution of chattel slavery, so repugnant to our modern ideas of right and wrong, and how shall we explain its defense and justification in the name of religion and morality? How account for the fact that what Yesterday regarded as righteous, To-day condemns as wrong; that what at one period of the world's history is regarded as perfectly natural and right—the practice of polygamy, for example—becomes abhorrent at another period; or that what is regarded with horror and disgust in one part of the world is sanctioned by the ethical codes, and freely practiced elsewhere? Ferri gives two examples of this kind: the cannibalism of Central African tribes, and the killing of parents, as a religious duty, in Sumatra.[61] To reply "custom" is to beg the whole question, for customs do not exist without reason, however difficult it may be to discern the reason for any particular custom. To reply that these things are mysteries, as the old theologians did when the doctrine of the Trinity was questioned, is to leave the question unanswered and to challenge doubt and investigation. The human mind abhors a mystery as nature abhors a vacuum. Despite Spencer, the human mind has never admitted the existence of the Unknowable. To explore the Unknown is man's universal impulse; and with each fresh discovery the Unknown is narrowed by the expansion of the Known.

The theory that ideas determine progress, that, in the words of Professor Richard T. Ely, "all that is significant in human history may be traced back to ideas,"[62] is only true in the sense that a half truth is true. It is true, nothing but the truth, but it is less than the whole truth. Truly all that is significant in human history may be traced back to ideas, but in like manner the ideas themselves can be traced back to material sources. For ideas have histories, too, and the causation of an idea must be understood before the idea itself can serve fully to explain anything. We must go back of the idea to the causes which gave it birth if we would interpret anything by it. We may trace the American Revolution, for example, back to the revolutionary ideas of the colonists, but that will not materially assist us to understand the Revolution. For that, it is necessary to trace the ideas themselves to their source, the economic discontent of an exploited people. This is the spirit which illumines the works of historians like Green, McMaster, Morse Stephens, and others of the modern school, who emphasize social forces rather than individual facts, and find the geist of history in social experiences and institutions.

What has been called the "Great Man theory," the theory according to which Luther created the Protestant Reformation, to quote only one example, and which ignored the great economic changes consequent upon the break-up of feudalism and the rise of a new industrial order, long dominated our histories. According to this theory, an idea, developed in the mind of Luther, independent of external circumstances, changed the political and social life of Europe. Had there been no Luther, there would have been no Reformation; or had Luther died before giving his idea to the world, the Reformation would have been averted. The student who seeks in the bulk of the histories written prior to, say, 1870, what he has a legitimate reason for seeking, namely, a picture of the actual life of the people at any period, will be sadly disappointed. He will find records of wars and treaties of peace, royal genealogies and gossip, wildernesses of names and dates. But he will not find such careful accounts of the jurisprudence of the period, nor any hint of the economical conditions of its development. He will find splendid accounts of court life, with its ceremonials, scandals, intrigues, and follies; but no such pictures of the lives of the people, their social conditions, and the methods of labor and commerce which obtained. He will be unable to visualize the life of the period. In other words, the histories lack realism; they are unreal, and, therefore, deceptive. The new spirit, in the development of which the materialist conception of Marx and Engels has been an important creative influence, is concerned less with the chronicle of notable events and dates than with their underlying causes and the manner of life of the people. Had it no other bearing, the Marx-Engels theory, considered solely as a contribution to the science of history, would have been one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the nineteenth century. By emphasizing the importance of the economic factors in social evolution, it has done much for economics and more for history.[63]


While the Materialistic Conception of History bears the names of Marx and Engels, as the theory of organic evolution bears the names of Darwin and Wallace, it is not claimed that the idea had never before been expressed. Just as thousands of years before Darwin and Wallace the theory which bears their names had been dimly perceived, so the idea that economic conditions dominate historical developments had its foreshadowings. The famous dictum of Aristotle, that only by the introduction of machines would the abolition of slavery ever be made possible, is a conspicuous example of many anticipations of the theory. It is true that "In dealing with speculations so remote, we have to guard against reading modern meanings into writings produced in ages whose limitations of knowledge were serious, whose temper and standpoint are wholly alien to our own,"[64] but the Aristotelian saying admits of no other interpretation. It is clearly a recognition of the fact that the supreme politico-social institution of the time depended upon hand labor.

In later times, the idea of a direct connection between economic conditions and legal and political institutions reappears in the works of various writers. Professor Seligman[65] quotes from Harrington's "Oceana" the argument that the prevailing form of government depends upon the conditions of land tenure, and the extent of its monopolization. Saint-Simon, too, as already stated, taught that political institutions depend upon economic conditions. But it is to Marx and Engels that we owe the first formulation into a definite theory of what had hitherto been but a suggestion, and the beginnings of a literature, now of considerable proportions, dealing with history from its standpoint. No more need be said concerning the "originality" of the theory.

A word as to the designation of the theory. Its authors gave it the name "historical materialism," and it has been urged that the name is, for many reasons, unfortunately chosen. Two of the leading exponents of the theory, Professor Seligman and Mr. Ghent, the former an opponent, the latter an advocate of Socialism, have expressed this conviction in very definite terms. The last-named writer bases his objection to the name on the ground that it is repellent to many persons who associate the word materialism with the philosophy "that matter is the only substance, and that matter and its motions constitute the universe."[66] That is an old objection, and undoubtedly contains much truth. It is interesting in connection therewith to read the sarcastic comment of Engels upon it in the introduction to his "Socialism, Utopian and Scientific." The objection of Professor Seligman is based upon another ground entirely. He impugns its accuracy. "The theory which ascribes all changes in society to the influence of climate, or to the character of the fauna and flora, is materialistic," he says, "and yet has little in common with the doctrine here discussed. The doctrine we have to deal with is not only materialistic, but also economic in character; and the better phrase is ... the 'economic interpretation' of history."[67] For this reason he discards the name given to the theory by its authors and adopts the luminous phrase of Thorold Rogers, without credit to that writer.

By French and Italian writers the term "economic determinism" has long been used, and it has been adopted to some extent in this country by Socialist writers. But this term, as Professor Seligman points out, is objectionable, because it exaggerates the theory, and gives it, by implication, a fatalistic character, conveying the idea that economic influence is the sole determining factor—a view which its authors specifically repudiated. While the reasoning of Professor Seligman in the argument quoted against the name "historical materialism" is neither very profound nor conclusive, since climate and fauna and flora are included in the term "economic" as clearly as in the term "materialistic," much may be said in favor of his choice of the term he borrows from Thorold Rogers, and it is used by many Socialist writers in preference to that used by Marx and Engels.

Many persons have doubtless been deceived into believing that the theory involves the denial of all influence to idealistic or spiritual factors, and the assumption that economic forces alone determine the course of historical development. Much of the criticism of the theory, especially by the Germans, rests upon that assumption. The theory is attacked, also, as being sordid and brutal upon the same false assumption that it implies that men are governed solely by their economic interests, that individual conduct is never inspired by anything higher than the economic interest of the individual. These are misconceptions of the theory, due, no doubt, to the overemphasis placed upon it by its authors—a common experience of new doctrines—and, above all, the exaggerations of too zealous, unrestrained disciples. There is a wise saying of Schiller's which suggests the spirit in which these exaggerations of a great truth—exaggerations by which it becomes falsehood—should be regarded: "Rarely do we reach truth, except through extremes—we must have foolishness ... even to exhaustion, before we arrive at the beautiful goal of calm wisdom."[68] When it is contended that the "Civil War was at bottom a struggle between two economic principles,"[69] we have the presentation of an important truth, the key to the proper understanding of a great historical event. But when that important fact is exaggerated and torn from its legitimate place to suit the propaganda of a theory, and we are asked to believe that Garrison, Lovejoy, and other abolitionists were inspired solely by economic motives, that the urge and passion of human freedom did not enter into their souls, we are forced to reject it. But let it be clearly understood that it forms no part of the theory, that it is even expressly denied in the very terms in which Marx and Engels formulated the theory, and that its authors repudiated such perversions of it.

In no respect has the theory been more grossly exaggerated and misrepresented than in its application to religion. True philosopher that he was, Marx realized the absurdity of attempting "to abstract religious sentiment from the course of history, to place it by itself."[70] He recognized that all religion is, fundamentally, man's effort to put himself into harmonious relation with, and to discover an interpretation of, the forces of the universe. The more incomprehensible those forces, the greater man's need of an explanation of them. He could not fail to see that the religion of a people always bears a marked relation to their mental development and their special environment. He knew that at various stages the Yahve of the Hebrews represented very different conceptions, answering to changes in the social and political conditions of the people. To the primitive Israelitish tribes, Yahve was, as Professor Rauschenbusch remarks,[71] a tribal god, fortunately stronger than the gods of the neighboring tribes, but not fundamentally different from them, and the way to win his favor was to sacrifice abundantly. Later, with the development of a national spirit, the religious ideal became a theocracy, and Yahve became a King and Supreme Lord. In times of oppression and war Yahve was a God of War, but under other conditions he was a God of Peace. At every step the conception of Yahve bears a very definite relation to the material life.[72]

Marx knew that primitive religions have often a celestial pantheon fashioned after the existing social order, kings being gods, aristocrats being demigods, and common mortals occupying a celestial rank equal to their terrestrial one. The celestial hierarchy of the Chinese, for example, is an exact reproduction of the earthly hierarchy, and all the privileges of rank are observed celestially as on earth. So in India we find the religions reproducing in their concepts of heaven the degrees and divisions of the various castes,[73] while our own American Indian conceived of a celestial hunting ground, with abundant reward of game, as his Paradise. "The religious world is but the reflex of the real world," said Marx,[74] and the phrase has been used, both by disciples and critics, as an attack upon religion itself; as showing that the Marxian philosophy excludes the possibility of religious belief. Obviously, however, the passage will not bear such an interpretation. To say that "the religious world is but the reflex of the real world" is by no means to deny that men have been benefited by seeking an interpretation of the forces of the universe, or to assert that the quest for such an interpretation is incompatible with rational conduct. In his scorn for Bakunin's "Alliance" programme with its dogmatic atheism[75] Marx was perfectly consistent. The passage quoted simply lays down, in bare outline, a principle which, if well founded, enables us to study comparative religion from a new viewpoint.

It is not a denial of religion, then, which the famous utterance of Marx involves, but a recognition of the fact that, even as all religions may be traced to the same fundamental instinct in mankind, so the different forms which the religious conception assumes are, or may be, reflexes of the material life of those making them. Thus man makes religion for himself under the urge of his deepest instincts. The application of the theory to religion is analogous to its application to historical events. To say that a given religion assumes the form it does as an unconscious reflex of the environment in which it is produced, is no more a denial of that religion than to say that the Reformation arose out of economic and social conditions, and not out of an idea in Luther's mind, is a denial of the fact that there was a Reformation, or that the Reformation benefited the people. The value of the theory to the study of religions and religious movements is not less than to the study of history. Does anybody pretend that we can understand Christianity without taking into account the Roman Empire; or that we can understand Catholicism without knowing something of the economic life of medieval Europe; or Methodism without knowing the social condition of England in Wesley's day?[76]

In one of the very earliest of his writings upon the subject, some comments upon the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, and intended to form the basis of a separate work, we find Marx insisting that man is not a mere automaton, driven irresistibly by blind economic forces. He says: "The materialistic doctrine, that men are the products of conditions and education, different men, therefore, the products of other conditions and changed education, forgets that circumstances may be altered by men, and that the educator has himself to be educated."[77] Thus early we see the master taking a position entirely at variance with those of his disciples who would claim that the human factor has no influence upon historical development, that man is without power over his own destiny. From that position Marx never departed. Both he and Engels recognized the human character of the problem, and the futility of attempting to reduce all the processes of history and human progress to one sole basic cause. And in no case, so far as I am aware, has either of them attempted to do this.

In another place, Marx contends that "men make their own history, but they make it not of their own accord or under self-chosen conditions, but under given and transmitted conditions. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a mountain upon the brain of the living."[78] Here, again, the influence of the human will is not denied, though its limitations are indicated. This is the application to social man of the theory of limitations of the will commonly accepted as applying to individuals. Man is only a freewill agent within certain sharp and relatively narrow bounds. In a given contingency, I may be "free" to act in a certain manner, or to refrain from so acting. I may take my choice, in the one direction or the other, entirely free, to all appearances, from restraining or compelling influences. Thus, I have acted upon my "will." But what factors formed my will? What circumstances determined my decision? Perhaps fear, or shame, or pride; perhaps tendencies inherited from my ancestors.

Engels admits that the economic factor in evolution has sometimes been unduly emphasized. He says: "Marx and I are partly responsible for the fact that the younger men have sometimes laid more stress on the economic side than it deserves. In meeting the attacks of our opponents, it was necessary for us to emphasize the dominant principle denied by them; and we did not always have the time, place, or opportunity to let the other factors which were concerned in the mutual action and reaction get their deserts."[79] In another letter,[80] he says: "According to the materialistic view of history, the factor which is in last instance decisive in history is the production and reproduction of actual life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. But when any one distorts this so as to read that the economic factor is the sole element, he converts the statement into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic condition is the basis; but the various elements of the superstructure,—the political forms of the class contests, and their results, the constitutions,—the legal forms, and also all the reflexes of these actual contests in the brains of the participants, the political, legal, philosophical theories, the religious views ... all these exert an influence on the development of the historical struggles, and, in many instances, determine their form."

It is evident, therefore, that the doctrine does not imply economic fatalism. It does not deny that ideals may influence historical developments and individual conduct. While, as we shall see in a later chapter, it is part of the doctrine that classes are formed upon a basis of unity of material interests, it does not deny that men may, and often do, act in accordance with the promptings of noble impulses and humanitarian ideals, when their material interests would lead them to do otherwise. We have a conspicuous example of this in the life of Marx himself; in his splendid devotion to the cause of the workers through years of terrible poverty and hardship when he might have chosen wealth and fame. It is known, for example, that Bismarck made the most extravagant offers to enlist the services of Marx, who declined them at the very time when he was suffering awful privations. Marx himself has noted more than one instance of individual idealism triumphing over material interests and class environment, and, by a perversity that is astonishing, and not wholly disingenuous, some of his critics, notably Ludwig Slonimski,[81] have used these instances as arguments against his theory, claiming that they disprove it! We are to understand the materialistic theory, then, as teaching, not that history is determined by economic forces only, but that in human evolution the chief factors are social factors, and that these factors in turn are mainly molded by economic circumstances.[82]

This, then, is the basis of the Socialist philosophy, which Engels regarded as "destined to do for history what Darwin's theory has done for biology." Marx himself made a similar comparison.[83] Marx was, so Liebknecht tells us, one of the first to recognize the importance of Darwin's investigations to sociology. His first important treatment of the materialistic theory, in "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy," appeared in 1859, the year in which "The Origin of Species" appeared. "We spoke for months of nothing else but Darwin, and the revolutionizing power of his scientific conquests,"[84] says Liebknecht. Darwin, however, had little knowledge of political economy, as he acknowledged in a letter to Marx, thanking the latter for a copy of "Das Kapital." "I heartily wish that I possessed a greater knowledge of the deep and important subject of economic questions, which would make me a more worthy recipient of your gift," he wrote.[85]


The test of such a theory must lie in its application. Let us, then, apply the materialistic principle, first to a specific event, and then to the great sweep of the historic drama. Perhaps no single event has more profoundly impressed the imaginations of men, or filled a more important place in our histories, than the discovery of America by Columbus. In the schoolbooks, this great event figures as a splendid adventure, arising out of a romantic dream. But the facts are, as we know, far otherwise.[86] In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there were numerous and well-frequented routes from Hindustan, that vast storehouse of treasure from which Europe drew its riches. Along these routes cities flourished. There were the great ports, Licia in the Levant, Trebizond on the Black Sea, and Alexandria. From these ports, Venetian and Genoese traders bore the produce over the passes of the Alps to the Upper Danube and the Rhine. Here it was a source of wealth to the cities along the waterways, from Ratisbon and Nuremburg, to Bruges and Antwerp. Even the slightest acquaintance with the history of the Middle Ages must suffice to give the student an idea of the importance of these cities.

When all these routes save the Egyptian were closed by the hordes of savages which infested Central Asia, it became an easy matter for the Moors in Africa and the Turks in Europe to exact immense revenues from the Eastern trade, solely through their monopoly of the route of transit. Thus there developed an economic parasitism which crippled the trade with the East. The Turks were securely seated at Constantinople, threatening to advance into the heart of Europe, and building up an immense military system out of the taxes imposed upon the trade of Europe with the East—a military power, which, in less than a quarter of a century, enabled Selim I to conquer Mesopotamia and the holy towns of Arabia, and to annex Egypt.[87] It became necessary, then, to find a new route to India; and it was this great economic necessity which set Columbus thinking of a pathway to India over the Western Sea. It was this same great problem which engaged the attention of all the navigators of the time; it was this economic necessity which induced Ferdinand and Isabella to support the adventurous plan of Columbus. In a word, without detracting in any manner from the splendid genius of Columbus, or from the romance of his great voyage of discovery, we see that, fundamentally, it was the economic interest of Europe which gave birth to the one and made the other possible. The same explanation applies to the voyage of Vasco da Gama, six years later, which resulted in finding a way to India over the southeast course by way of the Cape of Good Hope.

Kipling asks in his ballad, "The British Flag"—

"And what should they know of England, who only England know?"

There is a profound truth in the defiant line, a truth which applies equally to America or any other country. The present is inseparable from the past. We cannot understand one epoch without reference to its predecessors; we cannot understand the history of the United States unless we seek the key in the history of Europe—of England and France in particular. At the very threshold, in order to understand how the heroic navigator came to discover the vast continent of which the United States is part, we must pause to study the economic conditions of Europe which impelled the adventurous voyage, and led to the discovery of a great continent stretching across the ocean path. Such a view of history does not rob it of its romance, but rather adds to it. Surely, the wonderful linking of circumstances—the demand for spices and silks to minister to the fine tastes of aristocratic Europe, the growth of the trade with the East Indies, the grasping greed of Moor and Turk—all playing a role in the great drama of which the discovery of America is but a scene, is infinitely more fascinating than the latter event detached from its historical setting!

It is not easy to give in the compass of a few pages an intelligent view of the main currents of history. The sketch here introduced—not without hesitation—is an endeavor to state the Socialist concept of the course of social evolution in a brief outline and to indicate the principal economic causes which have operated to determine that course.

It is now generally admitted that primitive man lived under Communism. Lewis H. Morgan[88] has calculated that if the life of the human race be assumed to have covered one hundred thousand years, at least ninety-five thousand years were spent in a crude, tribal Communism, in which private property was practically unknown, and in which the only ethic was devotion to tribal interests, and the only crime antagonism to tribal interests. Under this social system the means of making wealth were in the hands of the tribes, or gens, and distribution was likewise socially arranged. Between the different tribes warfare was constant, but in the tribe itself there was cooeperation and not struggle. This fact is of tremendous importance in view of the criticisms which have been directed against the Socialist philosophy from the so-called Darwinian point of view, according to which competition and struggle is the law of life; that what Professor Huxley calls "the Hobbesial war of each against all" is the normal state of existence.

This is described as "the so-called Darwinian" theory advisedly, for the struggle for existence as the law of evolution has been exaggerated out of all likeness to the conception of Darwin himself. In "The Descent of Man," for instance, Darwin raises the point under review, and shows how, in many animal societies, the struggle for existence is replaced by cooeperation for existence, and how that substitution results in the development of faculties which secure to the species the best conditions for survival. "Those communities," he says, "which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring."[89] Despite these instances, and the warning of Darwin himself that the term "struggle for existence" should not be too narrowly interpreted or overrated, his followers, instead of broadening it according to the master's suggestions, narrowed it still more. Thus the theory has been exaggerated into a mere caricature of the truth. This is almost invariably the fate of theories which deal with human relations, perhaps it would be equally true to say of all theories. The exaggerations of Malthus's law of population is a case in point. The Marx-Engels theory of the materialistic conception of history is, as we have seen, another.

Kropotkin, among others, has developed the theory along the lines suggested by Darwin. He points out that "though there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, mutual defense, amidst animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society. Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.... If we resort to an indirect test, and ask nature: 'Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?' we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of intelligence and bodily organization. If the numberless facts which can be brought forward to support this view are taken into account, we may safely say that mutual aid is as much a law of animal life as mutual struggle, but that, as a factor of evolution, it most probably has a far greater importance, inasmuch as it favors the development of such habits and characters as insure the maintenance and further development of the species, together with the greatest amount of welfare and enjoyment of life for the individual, with the least waste of energy."[90]

From the lowest forms of animal life up to the highest, man, this law proves to be operative. It is not denied that there is competition for food, for life, within the species, human and other. But that competition is not usual; it arises out of unusual and special conditions. There are instances of hunger-maddened mothers tearing away food from their children; men drifting at sea have fought for water and food as beasts fight, but these are not normal conditions of life. "Happily enough," says Kropotkin again, "competition is not the rule either in the animal world or in mankind. It is limited among animals to exceptional periods.... Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual support."[91] This is the voice of science now that we have passed through the extremes and arrived at the "beautiful goal of calm wisdom." Competition is not, in the verdict of modern science, the law of life, but of death. Strife is not nature's way of progress.

Anything more important to our present inquiry than this verdict of science it would be difficult to imagine. Men have for so long believed and declared struggle and competition to be the "law of nature," and opposed Socialism on the ground of its supposed antagonism to that law, that this new conception of nature's method comes as a vindication of the Socialist position. The naturalist testifies to the universality of the principle of cooeperation throughout the animal world, and the historian and sociologist to its universality throughout the greatest part of man's history. Present economic tendencies toward combination and away from competition, in industry and commerce, appear as the fulfilling of a great universal law. And the vain efforts of men to stop that process, by legislation, boycotts, and divers other methods, appear as efforts to set aside immutable law. Like so many Canutes, they bid the tides halt, and, like Canute's, their commands are vain and mocked by the unheeding tides.

Under Communism, then, man lived for many thousands of years. As far back as we can go into the paleo-ethnology of mankind, we find evidences of this. All the great authorities, Morgan, Maine, Lubbock, Taylor, Bachofen, and many others, agree in this. And under this Communism all the great fundamental inventions were evolved, as Morgan and others have shown. The wheel, the potter's wheel, the lever, the stencil plate, the sail, the rudder, the loom, were all evolved under Communism in its various stages. So, too, the cultivation of cereals for food, the smelting of metals, the domestication of animals,—to which we owe so much, and on which we still so largely depend,—were all introduced under Communism. Even in our day there have been found many survivals of this Communism among primitive peoples. Mention need only be made here of the Bantu tribes of Africa, whose splendid organization astonished the British, and the Eskimos. It is now possible to trace with a fair amount of certainty the progress of mankind through various stages of Communism, from the unconscious Communism of the nomad to the consciously organized and directed Communism of the most highly developed tribes, right up to the threshold of civilization, when private property takes the place of common, tribal property, and economic classes appear.[92]


Private property, other than that personal ownership and use of things, such as weapons and tools, which involves no class or caste domination, and is an integral feature of all forms of Communism, first appears in the ownership of man by man. Slavery, strange as it may seem, is directly traceable to tribal Communism, and first appears as a tribal institution. When one tribe made war upon another, its efforts were directed to the killing of as many of its enemies as possible. Cannibal tribes killed their foes for food, rarely or never killing their fellow-tribesmen for that purpose. Non-cannibalistic tribes killed their foes merely to get rid of them. But when the power of mankind over the forces of external nature had reached that point in its development where it became relatively easy for a man to produce more than was necessary for his own maintenance, the custom arose of making captives of enemies and setting them to work. A foe captured had thus an economic value to the tribe. Either he could be set to work directly, his surplus product enriching the tribe, or he could be used to relieve some of his captors from other necessary duties, thus enabling them to produce more than would otherwise be possible, the effect being the same in the end. The property of the tribe at first, slaves become at a later stage private property—probably through the institution of the tribal distribution of wealth. Cruel, revolting, and vile as slavery appears to our modern sense,—especially the earlier forms of slavery before the body of legislation, and, not less important, sentiment, which surrounded it later arose,—it still was a step forward, a distinct advance upon the older customs of cannibalism and wholesale slaughter.

Nor was it a progressive step only on the humanitarian side. It had other, profounder consequences from the evolutionary point of view. It made a leisure class possible, and provided the only conditions under which art, philosophy, and jurisprudence could be evolved. The secret of Aristotle's saying, that only by the invention of machines would the abolition of slavery ever be made possible, lies in his recognition of the fact that the labor of slaves alone made possible the devotion of a class of men to the pursuit of knowledge instead of to the production of the primal necessities of life. The Athens of Pericles, for example, with all its varied forms of culture, its art and its philosophy, was a semi-communism of a caste above, resting upon a basis of slave labor underneath. Similar conditions prevailed in all the so-called ancient democracies of civilization.

The private ownership of wealth producers and their products made private exchange inevitable; individual ownership of land took the place of communal ownership, and a monetary system was invented. Here, then, in the private ownership of land and laborer, private production and exchange, we have the economic factors which caused the great revolts of antiquity, and led to that concentration of wealth into few hands, with its resulting mad luxury on the one hand and widespread proletarian misery upon the other, which conspired to the overthrow of Greek and Roman civilization. The study of those relentless economic forces which led to the break-up of Roman civilization is important as showing how chattel slavery became modified and the slave to be regarded as a serf, a servant bound to the soil. The lack of adequate production, the crippling of commerce by hordes of corrupt officials, the overburdening of the agricultural estates with slaves, so that agriculture became profitless, the crushing out of free labor by slave labor, and the rise of a wretched class of freemen proletarians, these, and other kindred causes, led to the breaking up of the great estates; the dismissal of superfluous slaves, in many cases, and the partial enfranchisement of others by making them hereditary tenants, paying a fixed share of their product as rent—here we have the embryonic stage of feudalism. It was a revolution, this transformation of the social system of Rome, of infinitely greater importance than the sporadic risings of a few thousand slaves. Yet, such is the lack of perspective which the historians have shown, it is given a far less important place in the histories than the risings in question. Slavery, chattel slavery, died because it had ceased to be profitable; serf labor arose because it was more profitable. Slave labor was economically impossible, and the labor of free men was morally impossible; it had, thanks to the slave system, come to be regarded as a degradation. In the words of Engels, "This brought the Roman world into a blind alley from which it could not escape.... There was no other help but a complete revolution."[93]

The invading barbarians made the revolution complete. By the poor freemen proletarians who had been selling their children into slavery, the barbarians were welcomed. Misery, like opulence, has no patriotism. Many of the proletarian freemen had fled to the districts of the barbarians, and feared nothing so much as a return to Roman rule. What, then, should the proletariat care for the overthrow of the Roman state by the barbarians? And how much less the slaves, whose condition, generally speaking, could not possibly change for the worse? The free proletarian and the slave could join in saying, as men have said thousands of times in circumstances of desperation:—

"Our fortunes may be better; they can be no worse."


Feudalism is the essential politico-economic system of the Middle Ages. Obscure as its origin is, and indefinite as the date of its first appearances, there can be no doubt whatever that the break-up of the Roman system, and the modification of the existing form of slavery, constituted the most important of its sources. Whether, as some writers have contended, the feudal system of land tenure and serfdom is traceable to Asiatic origins, being adopted by the ruling class of Rome in the days of the economic disintegration of the empire, or whether it rose spontaneously out of the Roman conditions, matters little to us. Whatever its archaeological interest, it does not affect the narrower scope of our present inquiry whether economic necessity caused the adoption of an alien system of land tenure and agricultural production, or whether economic necessity caused the creation of a new system. The central fact is the same in either case.

That period of history which we call the Middle Ages covers a span of well-nigh a thousand years. If we arbitrarily date its beginning from the successful invasion of Rome by the barbarians in the early part of the fifth century, and its ending with the final development of the craft guilds in the middle of the fourteenth century, we have a sufficiently exact measure of the time during which feudalism developed, flourished, and declined. There are few things more difficult than the bounding of epochs in social evolution by exact dates. Just as the ripening of the wheat fields comes almost imperceptibly, so that the farmer can say when the wheat is ripe, yet cannot say when the ripening occurred, so with the epochs into which social history divides itself. There is the unripe state and the ripe, but no chasm yawns between them; they are merged together. We speak of the "end" of chattel slavery, and the "rise" of feudalism, therefore, in a wide, general sense. As a matter of fact, chattel slavery survived to some extent for centuries, existing alongside of the new form of servitude; and its disappearance took place, not simultaneously throughout the civilized world, but at varying intervals. Likewise, there is a vast difference between the first, crude, ill-defined forms of feudalism and its subsequent development.

The theory of feudalism is the "divine right of kings." God is the Supreme Lord of all the earth, the kings are His vice-regents, devolving their authority in turn upon whomsoever they will. All land is held as belonging to the king, God's chosen representative. He divides the realm among his barons, to rule over and defend. For this they pay tribute to the king—military service in times of war and, at a later period, money. In turn, the barons divide the land among the lesser nobility, receiving tribute from them. By these divided among the freemen, who also pay tribute, the land is tilled by the serfs, who pay service to the freeman, the lord of the manor. The serf pays no tribute directly to the king, only to his liege lord; the liege lord pays to his superior, and so on, up to the king. This is the economic framework of feudalism; with its ecclesiastical side we are not here concerned.

At the base of the whole superstructure, then, was the serf, his relation to his lord differing only in degree, though in material degree, from that of the chattel slave. He might be, and often was, as brutally ill-treated as the slave before him had been; he might be ill-fed and ill-housed; his wife or daughters might be ravished by his master or his master's sons. Yet, withal, his condition was better than that of the slave. He could maintain his family life in an independent household; he possessed some rights, chief of which perhaps was the right to labor for himself. Having his own allotment of land, he was in a much larger sense a human being. Compelled to render so many days' service to his lord, tilling the soil, clearing the forest, quarrying stone, and doing domestic work, he was permitted to devote a certain, often an equal, number of days to work for his own benefit. Not only so, but the service the lord rendered him, in protecting him and his family from the lawless and violent robber hordes which infested the country, was considerable.

The feudal estate, or manor, was an industrial whole, self-dependent, and having few essential ties binding it to the outside world. The barons and their retainers, lords, thanes, and freemen, enjoyed a certain rude plenty, some of the richer barons enjoying a considerable amount of luxury and splendor. The villein and his sons tilled the soil, reaped the harvests, felled trees for fuel, built the houses, raised the necessary domestic animals, and killed the wild animals; his wife and daughters spun the flax, carded the wool, made the homespun clothing, brewed the mead, and gathered the grapes which they made into wine. There was little real dependence upon the outside world except for articles of luxury.

Such was the basic economic institution of feudalism. But alongside of the feudal estate with its serf labor, there were the free laborers, no longer regarding labor as shameful and degrading. These free laborers were the handicraftsmen and free peasants, the former soon organizing themselves into guilds. There was a specialization of labor, but, as yet, little division. Each man worked at a particular craft and exchanged his individual products. The free craftsman would exchange his product with the free peasant, and sometimes his trade extended to the feudal manor. The guild was at once his master and protector; rigid in its rules, strict in its surveillance of its members, it was strong and effective as a protector against the impositions and invasions of feudal barons and their retainers. Division of labor first appears in its simplest form, the association of independent individual workers for mutual advantage, sharing their products upon a basis of equality. This simple cooeperation involved no fundamental, revolutionary change in society. That came later with the development of the workshop system, and the division of labor upon a definite, predetermined plan. Men specialized now in the making of parts of things; no man could say of a finished product, "This is mine, for I made it." Production had become a social function.


At first, in its simple beginnings, the cooeperation of many producers in one great workshop did not involve any general or far-reaching changes in the system of exchange. But as the new methods spread, and it became the custom for one or two wealthy individuals to provide the workshop and necessary tools and materials for production, the product of the combined laborers being appropriated in its entirety by the owners of the agencies of production, who paid the workers a money wage representing less than the actual value of their product, and based upon the cost of their subsistence, the whole economic system was once more revolutionized. The custom of working for wages, hitherto rare and exceptional, became general and customary; individual production for use, either directly or through the medium of personal exchange, was superseded by social production for private profit. The wholesale exchange of social products for private gain took the place of the personal exchange of commodities. The difference between the total cost of the production of commodities, including the wages of the producers, and their exchange value—determined at this stage by the cost of producing similar commodities by individual labor—constituted the share of the capitalist, his profit, and the objective of his investment.

The new system did not spring up spontaneously and full-fledged. Like feudalism, it was a growth, a development of existing forms. And just as chattel slavery lingered on after the rise of the feudal regime, so the old methods of individual production and direct exchange of commodities for personal use lingered on in places and isolated industries long after the rise of the system of wage-paid labor and production for profit. But the old methods of production and exchange gradually became rare and almost obsolete. In accordance with the stern economic law that Marx afterward developed so clearly, the man whose methods of production, including his tools, are less efficient and economical than those of his fellows, thereby making his labor more expensive, must either adapt himself to the new conditions or fall in the struggle which ensues. The triumph of the new system of capitalist production, with its far greater efficiency arising from associated production upon a plan of specialized division of labor, was, therefore, but a question of time. The class of wage-workers thus gradually increased in numbers; as men found that they were unable to compete with the new methods, they accepted the inevitable and adapted themselves to the new conditions. The industrial revolution which established capitalism was, like the great revolutions which ushered in preceding social epochs, the product of man's tools.


[60] Edward Clodd, Pioneers of Evolution from Thales to Huxley, page 1.

[61] Socialism and Modern Science, by Enrico Ferri, page 96.

[62] Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society, by R. T. Ely, page 3.

[63] Cf. Seligman, The Economic Interpretation of History.

[64] Clodd, Pioneers of Evolution from Thales to Huxley, page 8.

[65] Seligman, The Economic Interpretation of History, page 50.

[66] Mass and Class, by W. J. Ghent, page 9.

[67] Seligman, The Economic Interpretation of History, page 4.

[68] Schiller, Philosophical Letters, Preamble.

[69] Seligman, The Economic Interpretation of History, page 86.

[70] Karl Marx, Notes on Feuerbach (written in 1845), published as an Appendix to Feuerbach, The Roots the Socialist Philosophy, by Friederich Engels. English translation by Austin Lewis (1903).

[71] Christianity and the Social Crisis, by Walter Rauschenbusch (1907), page 4.

[72] For a very scholarly discussion of this subject, the reader is referred to the series of articles by my friend, M. Beer, on The Rise of Jewish Monotheism, in the Social Democrat (London), 1908.

[73] Cf. The Economic Foundations of Society, by Achille Lorio, page 26.

[74] Capital, by Karl Marx (Kerr edition). Vol. I, page 91.

[75] Cf. Karl Marx on Sectarianism and Dogmatism (A letter written to his friend, Bolte), in the International Socialist Review, March, 1908, page 525.

[76] Very significant of the possibilities of a study of religious movements from this economic and social viewpoint is Professor Thomas C. Hall's little book, The Social Meaning of Modern Religious Movements in England (1900).

[77] Appendix to F. Engels' Feuerbach, the Roots of the Socialist Philosophy, translated by Austin Lewis, 1903.

[78] The Eighteenth Brumaire.

[79] Quoted from The Sozialistische Akademiker, 1895, by Seligman, The Economic Interpretation of History, page 142.

[80] Idem, page 143.

[81] Karl Marx's Nationaloekonomische Irrlehren, von Ludwig Slonimski, Berlin, 1897.

[82] I have not attempted to give a history of the development of the theory. For a more minute study of the theory, I must refer the reader to the writings of Engels, Seligman, Ferri, Ghent, Bax, and others quoted in these pages.

[83] Capital, Vol. I, page 406 n. (Kerr edition).

[84] Liebknecht, Memoirs of Karl Marx, page 91.

[85] Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, A Comparison, by Edward Aveling, London, 1897.

[86] See Thorold Rogers, The Economic Interpretation of History, second edition, 1891, pages 10-12.

[87] For various reasons, chief of which is that it would take me too far away from my present purpose, I do not attempt to develop the serious consequences of these events to Europe. See The Economic Interpretation of History, Chapter I, for a brief account of this.

[88] Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, by Lewis H. Morgan. New edition, Chicago, 1907.

[89] Darwin, The Descent of Man, second edition, page 163.

[90] Mutual Aid a Factor of Evolution, by Peter Kropotkin, pages 5-6.

[91] Idem, page 74.

[92] Cf. Ancient Society, by Lewis H. Morgan, and The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, by Friederich Engels.

[93] Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, p. 182.




Such was the mode of the development of capitalistic production in its first stage. In this stage a permanent wage-working class was formed, new markets were developed, many of them by colonial expansion and territorial conquest, and production for sale and profit became the rule, instead of the exception as formerly when men produced primarily for use and sold only their surplus products. A new form of class division thus arose out of this economic soil. Instead of being bound to the land as the serfs had been under feudalism, the wage-workers were bound to their tools. They were not bound to a single master, they were not branded on the cheek, but they were, nevertheless, dependent upon the industrial lords. Economic mastery gradually shifted from the land-owning class to the class of manufacturers. The political and social history of the Middle Ages is largely the record of the struggle for supremacy which was waged between these two classes. That struggle is the central fact of the Protestant Reformation and the Cromwellian Commonwealth.

The second stage of capitalism begins with the birth of the machine age; the introduction of the great mechanical inventions of the latter half of the seventeenth century, and the resulting industrial revolution, the salient features of which we have already traced. That revolution centered in England, whose proud but, from all other points of view than the commercial, foolish boast for a full century it was to be "the workshop of the world." The new methods of production, and the development of trade with India, and the colonies and the United States of America, providing a vast and apparently almost unlimited market, a tremendous rivalry was created among the people of England, tauntingly, but with less originality than bitterness, designated "a nation of shopkeepers" by Napoleon the First. Competition flourished and commerce grew under its mighty urge. Quite naturally, therefore, competition came to be regarded as "the life of trade," and the one supreme law of progress by British economists and statesmen. The economic conditions of the time fostered a sturdy individualism on the one hand, expressing itself in a policy of laissez faire, which, paradoxically, they as surely destroyed. The result was the paradox of a nation of theoretic individualists becoming, through its poor laws, and more especially through the vast body of industrial legislation which developed in spite of theories of laissez faire, a nation of practical collectivists.

The third and last stage of capitalism is characterized by new forms of industrial ownership, administration, and control. Concentration of industry and the elimination of competition are the distinguishing features of this stage. When, more than half a century ago, the Socialists predicted an era of industrial concentration and monopoly as the outcome of the competitive struggles of the time, their prophecies were mocked and derided. Yet, at this distance of time, it is easy to see what they were foresighted enough to envisage in the future; easy enough to see that competition carries in its bosom the germs of its own inevitable destruction. In words which, as Professor Ely says,[94] seem to many, even non-Socialists, like a prophecy, Karl Marx argued that the business units in production would continuously increase in magnitude, until at last monopoly emerged from the competitive struggle. This monopoly becoming a shackle upon the system under which it has grown up, and thus becoming incompatible with capitalist conditions, socialization must, according to Marx, naturally and necessarily follow.[95] In this as in all the utterances of Marx upon the subject we are reminded of the distinction which must be made between Socialism as he conceived it and the Socialism of the Utopians. We never get away from the law of economic interpretation. Socialism, according to Marx, will develop out of capitalist society, and follow capitalism necessarily and inevitably. It is not a plan to be adopted, but a stage of social development to be reached.


For the moment, we are not concerned with the prediction that Socialism must follow the full development of capitalism. The important point for our present study is the predicted growth of monopoly out of competition, and the manner in which that prediction has been realized. Concerning the manner and extent of the fulfillment of this prediction, there have been many keen controversies, both within and without the ranks of the followers of Marx. While Marx and Engels are properly regarded as the first scientific Socialists, having been the first to postulate Socialism as the outcome of evolution, and to explore the laws of that evolution, they were not wholly free from the failings of the Utopists. It would be unreasonable to expect them to be absolutely free from the spirit of their age and their associates. There is, doubtless, something Utopian in the very mechanical conception of capitalist concentration which Marx held; the process is too simple and sweeping, the revolution too imminent. Still, by followers and critics alike, it is generally conceded that the control of the means of production is being concentrated into the hands of small and ever smaller groups of capitalists. In recent years the increase in the number of industrial establishments has not kept pace with the increase in the number of workers employed, the increase of capital, or the value of the products manufactured. Not only do we find small groups of men controlling certain industries, but a selective process is clearly observable, giving to the same groups of men control of various industries otherwise utterly unrelated.

In the early stages of the movement toward concentration and trustification, it was possible to classify the leading capitalists according to the industries with which they were identified. One set of capitalists, "Oil Kings," controlled the oil industry; another set, "Steel Kings," controlled the iron and steel industry; another set, "Coal Barons," controlled the coal industry, and so on throughout the industrial and commercial life of the nation. To-day all this has been changed. An examination of the "Directory of Directors" shows that the same men control varied enterprises. The Oil King is at the same time a Steel King, a Coal Baron, a Railway Magnate, and so on. The men who comprise the Standard Oil group, for instance, are found to control hundreds of other companies. They include in the scope of their directorate, banking, insurance, milling, real estate, railroad and steamship lines, gas companies, sugar, coffee, cotton, and tobacco companies, and a heterogeneous host of other concerns. Not only so, but these same men are large holders of investments in all the great European countries, as well as India, Australia, Africa, Asia, and the South American countries, while foreign capitalists similarly, but to a less extent, hold large investments in American companies. Thus, the concentration of industrial control, through its finance, has become interindustrial and is rapidly becoming international. The predictions of Marx are being fulfilled, even though not in the precise manner anticipated by him.


During recent years there have been many criticisms of the Marxian theory, aiming to show that this concentration has been, and is, much more apparent than real. Some of the most important of these criticisms have come from within the ranks of the Socialist movement itself, and have been widely exploited as portending the disintegration of the Socialist movement. Inter alia, it may be remarked here that a certain fretfulness of temper characterizes most of the critics of Socialism. Strict adherence to the letter of Marx is pronounced as a sign of intellectual bondage of the movement and its leaders to the "Marxian fetish," and, on the other hand, every recognition of the human fallibility of Marx by a Socialist thinker is hailed as a sure portent of a split in the movement. Yet the most serious criticisms of Marx have come from the ranks of his followers—perhaps only another sign of the intellectual bankruptcy of the academic opposition to Socialism.

Of course, Marx was human and fallible. If "Capital" had never been written, there would still have been a Socialist movement, and if it could be destroyed by criticism, the Socialist movement would remain. Socialism is the product of economic conditions, not of a theory or a book. "Capital" is the intellectual explanation of the genesis of Socialism, and neither its cause nor an argument for it by which it must be judged. Hence the futility of such missions as that undertaken by Mr. W. H. Mallock, for example, based upon the assumption that attacks upon the text of Marx will serve to destroy or seriously hinder the living movement. Like a prophet's rebuke to these critics, as well as to those within the ranks of the Socialist movement who would make of the words of Marx and Engels fetters to bind the movement to a dogma, come the words of Engels, published recently, letters in which he writes vigorously to his friend Sorge concerning the working-class movement in England and America. Of his compatriots, the handful of German Socialist exiles in America, who sought to make the American workers swallow a mass of ill-digested Marxian theory, he writes, "The Germans have never understood how to apply themselves from their theory to the lever which could set the American masses in motion; to a great extent they do not understand the theory itself and treat it in a doctrinaire and dogmatic fashion.... It is a credo to them, not a guide to action." And again, "Our theory is not a dogma, but the exposition of a process of evolution, and that process involves several successive phases." Of the English movement he writes, "And here an instinctive Socialism is more and more taking possession of the masses which, fortunately, is opposed to all distinct formulation according to the dogmas of one or the other so-called organizations," and again, he condemns "the bringing down of the Marxian theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy."[96] The critics who hope to destroy the Socialist movement of to-day by stringing together mistaken predictions of Marx and Engels, or who think that Socialism is losing its grip because it is adjusting its expressions to the changed conditions which the progress of fifty years has brought about, utterly mistake the character of the movement. In its abandonment of the errors of Marx it is most truly Marxian—because it is expressing life instead of repeating dogma.

Doubtless Marx anticipated a much more complete concentration of capital and industry than has yet taken place; doubtless, too, he underrated the powers of endurance of some petty industries, and saw the breakdown of capitalism in a cataclysm, whereas modern Socialists see its merging into a form of socialization. But, when all this is admitted, it cannot be fairly said that the sum of criticism has seriously affected the general Marxian theory, as apart from its particular exposition by Marx himself. So far as the criticism has touched the subject of capitalist concentration, it has been pitifully weak, and the furore it has created seems almost pathetic. The main results of this criticism may be briefly summarized as follows: First, in industry, the persistence, and, in some cases, even increase, of petty industries; second, in agriculture, the failure of large-scale farming, and the decrease of the average farm acreage; third, in retail trade, the persistence of the small stores, despite the growth in size and number of the great department stores; fourth, the fact that concentration of industry does not imply a like concentration of wealth, the number of shareholders in a great industrial combination being frequently greater than the number of owners in the units of industry prior to the combination. At first sight, and stated in this manner, it would seem as if these conclusions, if justified by the facts, involved a serious and far-reaching criticism of the Socialist theory of a universal tendency toward the concentration of industry and commerce into units of ever increasing magnitude.

But upon closer examination, these conclusions, their accuracy admitted, are seen to involve no very damaging criticism of the theory. To the superficial observer, the mere increase in the number of industrial establishments seems a much more important matter than to the careful student, who is not easily deceived by appearances. The student sees that while some petty industries undoubtedly do increase in number, the increase of large industries employing many more workers and much larger capitals is vastly greater. Furthermore, he sees what the superficial observer constantly overlooks, namely, that these petty industries are, for the most part, unstable and transient, being continually absorbed by the larger industrial combinations or crushed out of existence, as soon as they have obtained sufficient vitality and strength to make them worthy of notice, either as tributaries to be desired or potential competitors to be feared. Petty industries in a very large number of cases represent a stage in social descent, the wreckage of larger industries whose owners are economically as dependent as the ordinary wage-workers, or even poorer and more to be pitied. Where, on the contrary, it is a stage in social ascent, the petty industry is, paradoxical as the idea may appear, frequently part of the process of industrial concentration. By independent gleaning, it endeavors to find sufficient business to maintain its existence. If it fails in this, its owner falls back to the proletarian level from which, in most instances, he arose. If it succeeds only to a degree sufficient to maintain its owner at or near the average wage-earner's level of comfort, it may pass unnoticed and unmolested. If, on the other hand, it gleans sufficient business to make it desirable as a tributary, or potentially dangerous as a competitor, the petty business is pounced upon by its mightier rival and either absorbed or crushed, according to the temper or need of the latter. Critics of the Marxian theory have for the most part completely failed to recognize this significant aspect of the subject, and attached far too much importance to the continuance of petty industries.


What is true of petty industry is true in even greater measure of retail trade. Nothing could well be further from the truth than the hasty generalization of some critics, that an increase in the number of retail business establishments invalidates the theory of a progressive concentration of capital. In the first place, many of these establishments have no independence whatsoever, but are merely agencies of larger enterprises. Mr. Macrosty has shown that in London the cheap restaurants are in the hands of four or five firms, and this is a branch of business which, because it calls for relatively small capital, shows in a marked manner the increase of establishments. Much the same conditions exist in connection with the trade in milk and bread.[97] Similar conditions prevail in almost all the large cities of this country. Single companies are known to control hundreds of saloons, restaurants, cigar stores, shoe stores, bake shops, coal depots, and the like. A multitude of other businesses are subject to this rule, and it is doubtful whether, after all, there has been the real increase of individual ownership which Mr. Ghent concedes.[98] However that may be, it is certain that a very large number of the business establishments which figure as statistical units in the argument against the Socialist theory of the concentration of capital might very properly be regarded as so many evidences in its favor.

A very large number of small businesses, moreover, are really manipulated by speculators, and serve only as a means of divesting prudent and thrifty artisans and others of their little savings. Whoever has lived in the poorer quarters of a great city, where small stores are most numerous, and has watched the changes constantly occurring in the stores of the neighborhood, will realize the significance of this observation. The writer has known stores on the upper East Side of New York, where for several years he resided, change hands as many as six or seven times in a single year. What happened was generally this: A workingman having been thrown out of employment, or forced to give up his work by reason of age, sickness, or accident, decided to attempt to make a living in "business." In a few weeks, or a few months at most, his small savings were swallowed up, and he had to leave the store, making place for the next victim. An acquaintance of the writer owns six tenement houses in different parts of New York City, the ground floors of which are occupied by small stores. These stores are rented by the month just as other portions of the buildings are, and the owner, on going over his books for a period of five years, found that the average duration of tenancy in them had been less than eight months.

During the past few years in the United States, as a result of the development of the many inventions for the production of "moving pictures," a new kind of cheap, popular theater has become common. Usually the charge of admission is five cents, whence the name "Nickelodeon"; the entertainment consists usually of a number of more or less dramatic incidents portrayed by means of the pictures, and a few songs, generally illustrated by pictures, and sung to the accompaniment of a mechanical piano. In almost every town in the United States these cheap pictorial theaters have appeared and their number will, doubtless, considerably swell the total of business establishments. In the small towns of the State of New York, the writer made an investigation and found that there were frequently several such places in the same town; that they were practically all built by the same persons, started by them, and then leased to others. These were generally people with small savings who, in the course of a few weeks, lost all their money and retired, their places being taken by other victims of the speculators. What seemed to the casual observer an admirable and conspicuous example of an increase in petty business, proved, upon closer study, to be a very striking example of concentration, disguised for purposes of speculation.

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