Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Is Socialism Slavery?

by Henry S. Salt

THERE is no more fruitful cause of misunderstandings in political and ethical speculation than the vague use of certain well-known terms and phrases, unaccompanied by any precise statement of the particular sense, or senses, which the various speakers attribute to them. Go to a debating society where some vexed question is under discussion, and when you have witnessed the comedy of errors into which, for mere lack of a plain unmistakable definition, the gravest speakers are precipitated, you will realise the allegorical significance of that suggestive handful of nuts which did so disturb and disorganise the performing monkeys in the fable. Indeed, it would scarcely be exaggeration to say that the confusion resulting from ambiguity of nomenclature is the very life and breath of dialectics, and that orators intuitively follow a shrewd instinct of self-preservation in declining, as they mostly decline, to pin themselves down to a definition. If it be true, as the poet tells us, that “philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,” it is equally true that definition will clip the wings of a debater,—let him but once ascertain the exact position of his adversary, and in nine cases out of ten there is little further to argue about; he will find either that the difference was due to some merely verbal misconception, or that there is an organic divergence of feeling which can be bridged by no argumentation.

Among the mischief-making words thus bandied to and fro in the monkey-house of sociological discussion, there are few so well calculated to set the disputants by the ears, and provoke a general mêlée, as the term individualism. Individualism is assumed to be the eternal opposite of socialism; and those speakers who wish to throw discredit on the socialist movement are never weary of representing socialism as tending towards a monotonous and grinding serfdom, which will crush out all individual distinction from the national character. It was lately asserted, for instance, in the columns of the Spectator, that under a socialist system, “when no man will be allowed to be more prominent than his neighbour, there will be no life that is more worthy of recording than another.” Now if the wiseacres who make this sort of statement would take the trouble to ascertain the exact nature of the “individualism” which socialists denounce, they would perhaps find their understanding enriched at the expense of their dialectical armoury. It would become apparent to these uncompromising champions of individual freedom that “individualism” is an extremely perilous and equivocal watchword, covering as it does, in ordinary parlance, the two wholly different concepts of man-making and money-making, or, as a Fabian essayist well expressed it, of personality and personalty. The “tyrannical uniformity” of socialism may serve as a handy text before an undiscriminating audience; but what if it be a fact that commercial individualism is itself the most potent destroyer of intellectual individuality?

Individuality, we are warned, will inevitably pine and wither under the iron heel of socialism. But how fares this higher individuality now, at a time when the socialist bull has not yet fully effected his entry into the china shop of laisser-faire—that antique store-house of very perishable pottery where “not to touch” is the far from unintelligible injunction? It would scarcely be exaggeration to say that the very existence of individuality is endangered under the present social conditions. As Walt Whitman says (and few more ardent individualists could be quoted), our modern civilisation is “everywhere turning out the generations of humanity like uniform iron castings.” In every direction the same monotony is observable; the classes live the lives of machine-made idlers, the masses of machine-made slaves; distinctive personality, whether among the haves or the have-nots, is the rarest possible phenomenon, and little respect or consideration is shown for it in the few cases where it appears. Can it be supposed that socialists are unaware of this obvious and deplorable fact? And is it not just conceivable that those who most feel the need of a socialistic legislation are also most alive to the equal need of giving free scope to genuine personal idiosyncrasies—in a word, that they are socialists not in spite of, but in consequence of, their regard for the individual?

The essential question seems to be this, In what spirit do socialists advocate the principle of State interference in the distribution of wealth? Is it for pure love of what Professor Huxley calls “regimentation,”* or is it with the purpose of using regimentation in the present as a means towards complete freedom in the future? Now even Professor Huxley admits that “there is no necessary connection between socialism and regimentation” ; and those who are in a position to take a full and clear view of the socialist movement can see that its real ultimate tendency is much more likely to afford satisfaction to the anarchist than to the drill-sergeant There are, of course, socialists and socialists, and it cannot be denied that there are many who, in the hurry and bustle of a political crusade, do not, perhaps cannot, look beyond the immediate object they have in view; but the general body of the socialist force, so far from being enamoured of “law and order” in itself (even though the “law and order” be administered on behalf of socialism instead of in opposition to it), is thoroughly convinced of the sacredness of liberty, both national and individual, provided that liberty be something more than the mere name and cuckoo-cry into which it has been degraded by the laisser-faire politicians. It must not be assumed that, because socialists would pass some drastic laws concerning the organisation and payment of industry, they are devout supporters of law and order as a permanent institution. On the contrary, they would gladly take a dozen laws off the statute-book for each one they would inscribe there.

The ostensible aim and ideal of all social endeavour is liberty; on this point there is a uniform, though unfortunately only verbal, agreement. But what is liberty, and by what course are we to attain it? This is the crucial problem, the difficulties of which will not be lessened by the short-sighted assumption that a period of State socialism is necessarily inimical to the development of genuine individuality. “The mass, or lump character,” says Whitman, “for imperative reasons is ever to be carefully weighed, borne in mind, and provided for. Only from it, and its proper regulation and potency, comes the other, comes the chance of individualism.... It is mainly or altogether to serve independent separatism that we favour a strong generalisation, consolidation.” Such words well express the practical, if not consciously deliberate, attitude of the socialist party towards this momentous question. From unjust laws to just laws, from Just laws to no laws—such is the true socialist formula; and this would be understood readily enough, were it not for the misleading ambiguity that lurks in the term “individualism.”

It is, I repeat, a fatal injustice to this word, that it should be so commonly used in the sense of individual money-making; that is to say, of self-seeking at the expense of the lives and happiness of one’s fellows. Individualism of this sort, the acknowledged basis of the present form of society, may perhaps be productive of a certain professional alertness and acumen, but it is the grave of all real distinction of personal character. If we are ever to devote ourselves to the higher questions of life, we must somehow cease to give our zealous attention to the lower; we must once for all solve and shelve the problem of mere material livelihood, that we may fit ourselves for the consideration of problems of a worthier and more arduous kind. In short, we must co-operate in worldly things, in order to differ in intellectual; we must be socialists first to be individualists afterwards.

It will be said, no doubt, that like begets like, and that however pious be the intention of those who preach socialism as the path to individualism, the result must inevitably be disastrous, since individual liberty cannot, in the nature of things, be promoted by a course of State interference. Now the few thorough-going individualist-anarchists, who attribute our present evils not merely to the injustice of established governments but to the existence of any government at all, may perhaps consistently plead that the extended application of socialist principles would, so far as it went, be an attempt to heal the sufferer with a hair of the dog that bit him. It is my belief, for reasons presently to be suggested, that there is no ultimate antagonism between socialism and extremest anarchism; but it must be admitted that the objection is not out of place when urged by the small band of anarchists who have the courage of their opinions. Coming from the ordinary supporters of the present system, the cry of danger to “individual liberty” is ridiculous enough, since the governmental supervision which socialists invoke would be directed only to those abuses where so-called “liberty” is the merest fraud and delusion. In fact, it is mostly a question of names and definitions, and unfortunately the combatants in this controversy are apt to bandy names which they scarcely attempt to define. It may be perfectly true that like begets like; but it is also true that if you mistake black for white at the outset, the result of your most scientific calculations will be altogether abnormal and surprising.

For example, the laisser-faire economists have for years made “freedom” their motto, and out of this “freedom” has been developed a system of commercial wage-slavery as detrimental to individual independence as any serfdom that could be devised! Such is the effect of a superstitious regard for certain well-sounding words and phrases, without a clear understanding of their precise meaning or of the actualities that underly them. Let us not continue to be the victims of this confusion, by supposing that to prohibit a man from exploiting his neighbour is (under our present social conditions) any encroachment on “individual freedom.” On the contrary, it is the first and most essential step towards securing a state of affairs where individual freedom may be possible.

It will be objected that as the laisser-faire school was stultified by the event of its policy, so also may be the socialists, and that the new kind of liberty may prove as great a disappointment as the old. True, it may be so, perhaps will be so, if the socialists are foolish enough to relax their vigilance in assuring themselves that the object of their efforts is a reality and not a sham; but this admission amounts to nothing more than that human nature is fallible. What I insist on is that socialists, so far from having any special designs against individual liberty, as compared with the supporters of the present system, are distinguished by their determined preference of the substance to the shadow; alone among the political parties of the day, they have before them a clear and definite principle, and this principle (as viewed by those thinkers who are not confused or hoodwinked by the vagueness of sociological terms) is certainly not antagonistic to individual freedom. The problem of socialism is, as Rousseau expressed it, “to find that form of association in which each person, by uniting himself to the rest, shall nevertheless be obedient only to himself, and remain as fully at liberty as before.”

That the charge of undervaluing and endangering true personality of character should be urged against socialists, and further, that it should be urged by those who would maintain the present utterly chaotic and invertebrate social state, is a stroke of unconscious humour which deserves a word of recognition. For, as a matter of fact, it is mainly in the socialist camp, and in the camp of those who are not unfriendly to socialism, that we must look for two-thirds of whatever individuality is now-a-days existent among us; and it is surely a fact of some significance that the fullest appreciation of such intensely individualist writers as Whitman and Thoreau, Tolstoi and Ibsen, should hail from the same direction. To accuse the socialists, as they are often accused, of being a set of unpatriotic, irreverent, free-thinking revolutionists, and also of conspiring to impose on society a dull and monotonous slavery, is to blow hot and cold with the same breath; both charges cannot be true, for they are quite contradictory and self-destructive. It is as though some prim, starched, regulation-made man-of-business, in blank uniformity of dismal garb and inexpressive feature the very image and counterpart of every other man of business, should publicly accost an unconventionally dressed socialist in some such style as this: “You revolutionary scoundrel, where are your tall hat and your black coat? And why can’t you conduct yourself respectably like other folk? Socialism, forsooth! Why, your socialist schemes would reduce us all to a dead level, and crush out our distinctive individuality of character.”

So far I have spoken of a common misunderstanding of the tendency of socialism by the ordinary member of society. As between socialism and anarchism the case is somewhat different; though here, also, the prevailing babel of words seems to have generated some confusion of sentiment. In a strict philosophical sense there is, no doubt, an antithesis between anarchy and regimentation, but nevertheless there is no practical reason why socialists and anarchists should jump to the conclusion that they are involved in an irreconcilable dispute. The when is a vital point which is often, and most unaccountably, left out of consideration in the discussion of these themes. Short-sighted socialists look only at to-day; farsighted anarchists can see nothing but to-morrow; hence the quarrel between the two factions is one of time rather than of principle, and may be illustrated by the position of the Jew in the story, who, having fallen into a pit on Saturday, would not be helped out because it was his Sabbath, while the Christian, who proffered aid, would not give help the next day because it was his Sabbath. But when once it is understood that anarchism is the further horizon, the ideal of socialism, all contradiction vanishes, and it is seen that one and the same man may, with perfect consistency, be a State socialist as regards the politics of to-day, and an extreme anarchist in his forecast of to-morrow; he will preach socialism when he speaks as a politician, anarchism when he speaks as an idealist. Let us suppose that an army has to be marched through two passes, or, to take a more homely metaphor, that a pig has to be driven through two gates. Both passes, or both gates, must in such a case be kept open; and the advanced guard that is detached to do the further duty is co-operating, even if it be unaware of the fact, with the main army that devotes itself to the nearer one; the time of the one is the present, of the other the future, that is the sole difference between them. Even so it is in the double transition that has been spoken of, from unjust laws to just laws, which is socialism; from just laws to no laws, which is anarchism.

In conclusion, then, there is no ultimate incompatibility between socialism and individualism; for anarchy—the “state of nature” of which Rousseau was the prophet—is the goal where extreme communist and extreme individualist even now-a-days meet, and where both parties will unite their forces in the future. Meantime, for a century or so, the wordy warfare is, no doubt, destined to continue; the old, vague, undefined terms, the stock-in-trade of the dialectician, will still be hurled recklessly to and fro, and furnish plentiful matter for disputation; the individualism of the maxim, “Know thyself,” will be conveniently confused with the individualism of “Beggar thy neighbour,” and, on the strength of this confusion, State-socialism will be scientifically demonstrated to be State-slavery. And all for lack of a definition!

* Nineteenth Century, May 1890.

Published: Pioneer, Date unknown