Mr. Auberon Herbert has recently been making an attack on what he believes to be Socialism. The name of “Socialism” has the same disquieting effect on Mr. Auberon Herbert as a red cloak on a bull, and he runs a violent tilt against any and every proposed scheme of reform in which he detects any violation of his divine law of “freedom of contract.” The most singular passages of his articles are perhaps those in which he condemns all Socialistic remedies on account of their involving (1) the employment of “force” and (2) the loss of “liberty.” Now to begin with, it is unfortunate that Mr. Herbert does not give any definition of what he means by “force” and “liberty,” but merely launches out into violent invective against those who supply the former or sacrifice the latter. He is, of course quite correct in saying that thorough-going Socialists are prepared, if it should seem necessary of desirable, to employ force. But what is force? Is the term only applicable to the power of numbers which the proletariat will some day exert in order to recover the inheritance of which it has been deprived? Is the present capitalist system based on some juster principle? A moment’s thought will show that the present system, though it also exhibits all the most conspicuous features of fraud, is nevertheless based mainly on force. It is force that exacts the landlord’s rent and the capitalist’s interest. There may be no actual display of force in the exaction but the fact remains that the landlord and capitalist posses the privilege of framing laws as they will, through the enormous preponderance of power which their wealth gives them, and thus all the organised forces of the country – armies, navies, and policemen–are in reality at their service. At the present moment, force, none the less real because not actually displayed, is the main factor in every contract between capitalist and laborer.; yet when the working classes talk in their turn of employing force, Mr. Herbert is shocked at the strangeness and injustice of the proposal!
Again, on the question of liberty: it is easy enough to cry out that liberty would be endangered by Socialistic legislation, but where is the proof of this; a philosophical writer like Mr. Herbert should not be content with vaguely using the mere watchword of liberty, but should state what the definition of liberty is, and show how it would be endangered. Does Mr. Herbert really imagine that the “freedom of contract” which he so warmly admires is true liberty? It is mere playing with words to say there is any similarity between them. For what is the use of legal freedom unless it is accompanied by practical freedom? What is the use of being free to contract what you like, when practically you are compelled to agree to whatever is offered you? In the part of the country where I write, women are often compelled to work in the fields for tenpence a day. They have the legal right of refusing to do this and getting more remunerative employment, but if they did so they know they would receive notice to quit their cottages at the end of the week. This is “freedom of contract,” but it does not strike one as being precisely the same thing as liberty. Is the horse free when he draws the carriage? It is apparently a free action of will that sets the horse’s limbs in motion, and a more perfect instance of “freedom of contract” could scarcely be desired; but we may be permitted to suspect that the proximity of the coachman’s whip exercises a considerable influence on his movements. Is the traveller free when he hands his purse to a Sicilian Highwayman? It is evidently a free contract for the traveller himself hands over the purse, but then the highwayman has a nasty looking dagger in his girdle. In the same way it is puerile to talk about English workmen possessing liberty, while the alternative of imminent starvation vitiates the freedom of every mock contract made between employer and man.
“Private property,” says Mr. Herbert, “is the one inseparable condition of liberty.” If this be so, where is the freedom of English workmen, who toil all their lives from morning to night without acquiring any private property whatever? Does Mr. Herbert think they are free; and if so how does he account for the absence of that private property which he himself says is the inseparable condition of liberty? If they are not free, why does not Mr. Herbert, the champion of liberty, set about effecting their redemption? What can be the use of crying out about the future danger of liberty in Socialistic legislation, when even now a great part of our population has no liberty to endanger? We have had a few centuries’ experience of individualism, and the result is a slavery of the worst kind. Ardent lovers of liberty would do well to examine and account for the fact before warning us of the danger of a similar disaster in trying the contrary system. Liberty at all times requires to be closely and jealously guarded, but those who are always talking of liberty, and posing as its champion, are not necessarily the best authorities on the subject. Mr. Herbert in his capacity of a lover of liberty, irresistibly reminds one of Tom Tulliver, the lover of animals; “a young gentleman,” as George Eliot happily expresses it, “very fond of animals–very fond that is of throwing stones at them.”
Justice, No. 69, May 9, 1885, 2