Marx and Thoreau

Marx and Thoreau

The Politics of Capitalism. By J. T. WALTON NEWBOLD, M.A. (British Socialist Party, 1917. 1d.)
Henry David Thoreau. By HENRY S. SALT. (Humanitarian League, 1917. 1d.)

THE centenary of Thoreau’s birth has just been celebrated. By those who love centenary celebrations, the centenary of the birth of Marx will be celebrated next year. Thoreau never left New England, dying there in 1862. Marx, born at Treves, died in London in the year 1883. It is unlikely that Thoreau ever heard of the author of Capital, for though (next to Russia) America is now the most congenial home of Marxist Socialism, the echoes even of the Communist Manifesto were but faintly heard across the Atlantic more than half-a-century ago. Marx had probably heard of Thoreau, for Marx was an omnivorous reader and outlived the American by fifteen years, but he is unlikely to have given the ideas that find their supreme expression in Walden more than a contemptuous passing thought. None the less, it is by no merely fortuitous juxtaposition that Salt’s and Newbold’s pamphlets are here associated, for in the opinion (by no means unique) of the writer of this notice, the Marxist outlook and the Thoreauist outlook are essential complementaries, both indispensable to the full Socialist understanding of life, both equally necessary to the upbuilding of the Socialist future.

Twelve months ago Socialism and War, by Louis Boudin, the American Marxist, was reviewed in these pages. Since then Newbold has discovered Boudin, just as a year or two earlier he had discovered Marx. Before either of these new planets swam into his ken, the young English economist was thinking on vigorous and independent lines. The vigour and independence continue, but Newbold would be the last to deny that his thought has been enormously clarified by the reading of Marx and of Boudin. Thus, brief as it is, The Politics of Capitalism manifests a notable advance upon How Europe Armed for War, just as the last-named work manifested a great advance upon certain articles contributed to the New York Call in the first year of the war. Newbold’s economics have become more unmistakably “Socialist economics,” and have gained enormously in the process.

The Politics of Capitalism, then, is a brief exposition of the Marx-Boudin thesis that (political “ideals” and political activities being determined by class interest) the changing ideology of liberalism, the transformation scene to which (in England) Joseph Chamberlain acted as stage carpenter, the replacement, as the predominant influence in English political life, of the spirit of Quaker universal philanthropy by the spirit of Capitalist imperialism, of the régime of Bright and Cobden by the régime of George and Milner—have all been conditioned by the enormous recent expansion of the iron and steel industry, now the dominant interest of the great money lords, just as textiles were their dominant interest during the era of Liberal Free Trade. The world-struggle, as Newbold sees it, is, in essence, a Capitalist’s war. The Imperialists are “crusaders of commodities.”

War came—a war for liberty, for the rights of small nationalities, for fatherland, for the freedom of the seas, for the destruction of militarism, for oil the catch phrases and illuminated sky signs with which these high-souled hucksters have pushed their wares. It is a war for liberty—the liberty to exploit, unhindered by the other fellow’s dastardly competition. It is a war . . . to emancipate small nations and subject peoples . . - by the aid of the moneylenders of Justice and Civilisation. It is a war . . . to fill the highways of the nations with the tumult and the whistling and the tooting of the freight train, the motor lorry, and the steamship; to festoon the wildernesses with telegraph, telephone, and electric-power cables; to erect mine-heads and oil-shafts, mills and furnaces, hotels and grain elevators, to the Lord God of profit, whose temple they have vowed to build of beaten gold that he may make his everlasting, abiding place among His chosen people. Such is the vision that has been revealed to the Crusaders of commodities. The mark, the dollar, or the sovereign—in that sign will they conquer.

Will our Socialist economist understand me when I assure him that, seeing all these things as he sees them, I see also that we shall make no headway towards the goal of our desire unless, in addition, we are, like Thoreau, like Stirner, like Whitman, like Carpenter, like Salt, arch-individualists, anarchists, artists in life? If Newbold will not understand me, there are others who will, and to them I commend Salt’s admirable pamphlet on Thoreau—thinker, apostle of simplicity, and humanitarian. There are many other things we can learn from “the Sage of Concord,” but, above all, he can guide us in our quest to make living a fine art, and help us to minimise in our selfhood that use of others as means to our ends which, inevitable in a Capitalist régime, can be finally abolished only through the establishment of the Socialist commonwealth. Simplicity of living is not, however, to be pursued as an end in itself; it is not to be prized merely a state of mind; it is not to be regarded as “devoid of external characteristics.”

“Personal simplicity,” writes Salt, “is a sign, not of asceticism, as is often wrongly supposed, but of the triumph of genuine taste over traditional habit; a wise man simplifies because, on the whole, he derives more satisfaction from simplicity than from abundance. . . . But while it is important not to overburden oneself with ‘comforts,’ it is no less important not to overburden other persona with the labour of producing them; and it is this social and humanitarian view of the question which is so often evaded. The hard work of the world has to be done by someone.”

Thoreau puts the matter in a nutshell in one of those golden sayings scattered richly through the pages of Walden. To quote it in conclusion may perhaps help puzzled readers to understand what I am driving at in coupling his name with that of Karl Marx.

If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first that he may pursue his contemplations also.

We cannot, under Capitalism, entirely escape riding upon men’s (or women’s) shoulders. A study of Thoreau, mental assimilation to his outlook, will at least enable us to realise when we are doing it, and will help us, on occasions, to dismount, and to enjoy the rare luxury of walking upon out own feet.

L. E.

The Socialist Review, January/March 1918